By Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer
Next week, Mark Thomas begins a two-week residency at Kilburn’s The Tricycle in the latest leg of his Trespass tour. If you think age might have mellowed one of the bête noirs of the 1990s, guess again: Thomas is as frustrated as ever with what’s being allowed to happen to his country – this time its public spaces.
And frustration brings the best out of him, propelling him into another mish-mash of storytelling, stand-up, activism and journalism that makes his act truly unique. As long as the world is an imperfect place, you sense that Mark Thomas will stick around to point it out. But, to be safe, head to see a master at work while you can.
Some websites have said that ‘Mark Thomas is back’. That’s not really true, because he’s never been away. Not since deciding at 16 to become a comedian, and embark on an adventurous career that’s seen him receive almost as many political awards – including the Kurdish National Congress Medal of Honour – as comedy gongs.
No slacktivist, Thomas has suffered for the cause: being at the vanguard of countless protests invariably leads to brushes with the police and other branches of the establishment. However, he’s usually come out on top and, in doing so, become one of the leading political comedians of the last 30 years.
At 53, Thomas doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. There’s a spikeness to him – even when promoting his tour – that betrays his “huge frustration and anger” with what he sees happening around him.
The latest source of his ire is “the corporate takeover of public space through curtailed liberties and gentrification”. At its lowest level, it prevents us doing what our parents could. In the show, he demonstrates this during various filmed walks, encountering banning notices and security guards with alarming regularity.
And at its worst? “Well, you’ve got a council estate in Elephant and Castle where 3,000 people are essentially cleansed so that they can build some regeneration scheme,” he says. “Those people can’t afford to live there. So some people are having to move out as far as Hull – it’s f*cking ridiculous.”
The title of the show, Trespass, takes its inspiration from the 1932 wilful mass trespass at Kinder Scout in the Peak District, highlighting the fact that walkers were being denied access to large areas of open country.
For those – like me – unfamiliar with precisely what went down, Thomas explains: “About 500 working people decided to trespass on Kinder Scout. No-one was allowed on that bit of land because some rich bloke liked to shoot small birds on it now and again.”
The protesters avoided the police, reached the top, held speeches and sang songs, being sure to tidy up after themselves before leaving. “But when they walked back down, five of the ringleaders were arrested and sentenced to between two and six months’ imprisonment.
“Six months in jail for fighting for the view is quite a poetic thing,” he reflects. “So that’s the basis for the show: that historically there’s a precedent for people to trespass on public land and say: ‘we want this opened up’. And of course that direct action was a catalyst for the right to roam movement, that saw fruition 68 years later in the 2000 Right to Roam Act.”
If this all sounds a little heavy for comedy, that’s because Thomas’ act is no longer really ‘stand-up’ but something more varied and substantial.
“What I do now is my own kind of weird performance shows which involve storytelling, stand-up, theatre, activism, performance art, journalism and all those bits and pieces that get muddled up and spat out at the end of it. Essentially what I do is go off and have adventures, and come back and tell people the story, and urge them to join in.”
While audiences up and down the country have enjoyed engaging with his latest adventures, Trespass promises particular food for thought for Londoners. Because Thomas is alarmed by what he sees in the city of his birth, which is becoming “its own inflated bubble of prince-state owned and moral-less sh*t.”
He’s not opposed to change for change’s sake, but much of the development under Boris Johnson upsets him: “I mean, look at Paddington Basin. All that area is just the most soulless, hollow piece of sh*t going. And that’s Boris’ legacy.”
But it would be wrong to suppose Thomas despairs. “There’s just so much to love about London,” he says. “Wherever you’re from, you have these strong emotional links with the landscape. In my case, it ranges from a particular tree on Clapham Common I’ve played on since I was five to the Brick Lane Beigel Bakery.”
So it’s too simplistic to class Thomas as an agitator – someone who always sees the glass half empty – because his campaigning isn’t solely routed in a desire for good. It also stems from his belief about what comedy should be. “It has to be about something,” he says. “There has to be an idea at its basis and that idea has to be challenging.”
This outlook emerged during his time studying Theatre Arts at Breton Hall in Yorkshire. In spare moments, Thomas and his friends would put on shows at the Red Shed Labour Club in Wakefield to raise money for miners and other important local causes. This cemented the link in his mind between politics and comedy, and looking back on this period will form the basis for his next show.
As with Trespass, there will be humour throughout, but something more fundamental at its core. As Thomas says: “If you’re going to do observational comedy, then have something worthwhile observing.”
Mark Thomas is performing ‘Trespass’ at The Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn between Monday 25th April and Saturday 7th May (excluding Sunday 1st May). To get tickets, go to The Tricycle’s website. What’s On London wishes Mark all the very best with the remainder of his tour.