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Mark Thomas: “You’re constantly climbing a ladder, but the last rung you always pull away from yourself”

| Comedy, Spoken Word, Theatre | 09/03/2017

MARK THOMAS 1 - Please credit Tracey Moberley
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Mark Thomas is performing his latest highly-acclaimed show – The Red Shed – at Battersea Arts Centre until Saturday night.  It is an incredible piece of work, perfectly blending comedy, theatre and journalism while provoking laughter, emotion and thought.  Ahead of his return to London, Ian Cater caught up with Thomas to discuss audience participation, lost sheep and David Walliams.

London audiences have four more chances to experience The Red Shed – a homage to the Wakefield Labour Club where Mark Thomas first ‘found his politics’ and became involved in the 1984 Miners’ Strike.  And, no matter what your political persuasion, I can hardly recommend this amazing production enough.

It’s neither pure comedy, nor pure theatre.  Instead, The Red Shed is a masterful lesson in storytelling – an art in which Thomas undoubtedly specialises.

“I am obsessed with how we tell stories,” he says.  “I’ve been a performer for over 31 years, starting out as a stand-up but then I drew a line in 2000.  Since then, my work’s been story-driven.  It started with a show called Dambusters, all about the Ilisu Dam Campaign [protesting against a proposal to displace up to 78,000 Kurds near the River Tigris]. When people heard I was doing a two-hour story about a dam, they told me I was mad.  But I said: ‘Look: Dr Zhivago starts and finishes there so it’s not a bad fucking precedent.'”

All hands on deck

MARK THOMAS 2- Please credit Tracey MoberleyThomas’ latest story involves the audience in a way few productions manage, both physically and emotionally.

He effects a variety of voices, plays audio clips, conducts songs and brings members of the public onstage to embody some of his characters.  In fact, he’d rope in the crowd even more if he could.

“My original idea was for everyone to turn up two hours before the gig and help me build the Red Shed,” Thomas beams.  “But my tour manager just looked at me and said: ‘Erm, health and safety?’  I would’ve loved to do it though, because the show is a communal event.  It’s all about making people feel that sense of community – and loss when communities go – by joining in.”

He also reels in the audience by playing with the pace of his delivery, frequently jolting you from hilarity to despair and back again.  He makes constant and searching eye contact.  But as soon as things start to get too heavy, Thomas returns to his stand-up roots with a quip about Michael Gove or Cath Kidston.

“In any story, you want to change speed,” he explains, “to misdirect people and take them on a journey.  The beautiful thing about stories is getting people to feel empathy and make them laugh at things they didn’t expect to.  To share in that joy and elation in one moment, and crash down with failure and disappointment the next.”

Our friends in the North

Plenty of elation and disappointment season this latest serving, sourced from a seminal event in Thomas’ life: a march he joined in 1984 through a pit village.  He starts the show by describing it poetic detail: a line of miners moving past a school playground where children sang Solidarity Forever, supporting their fathers and brothers in the fight against injustice.  And then he admits: “I’ve told that story so many times, that I’ve no idea whether it’s even true.”

Thomas spends the remainder reporting on his journalistic quest to track down that village, to test his memory and reconnect with old friends from The Red Shed, who he describes and mimics with amusing affection.  It quickly turns into a tribute to the region and its people.

“The show is resolutely for the North,” he says.  “When I perform it in Sheffield, Stirling, Leeds … the audience knows precisely what losing an industry means.  We did it recently in Hull as part of the City of Culture, and they’ve got this great programme where they put on shows in school halls and charge next to nothing to get a different demographic along.  The first night, it was absolutely electric.  There were standing ovations, tears … the lot.  A guy from the estate opposite came up to me afterwards and said: ‘I’ve never seen anything like that in my whole life.’  That’s possibly the best thing I’ve heard.  I was so delighted.”

As well as appealing to his Northern fans, the material invariably chimes with left-leaning audiences – often one and the same.  However, the drama Thomas tirelessly injects means the show has actually connected with a real cross-section of society.  “That has surprised me,” he admits. “Even in places like Oxford and Kent, it received an amazing reception.  Maybe they’re lost sheep returning to the fold, who knows?  Someone came up to me after one of those shows and said: ‘I’m so ashamed I ever voted Tory!’  I’m not sure I want to engender that sense of guilt, but ….”

Going through emotions

As with most of his output, the show is passionate and uncompromising.  But the emotions run even higher in this deeply personal story and occasionally threaten to spill over.  There’s good acting at play, but also genuine raw feeling.

MARK THOMAS 7 - Please credit Steve Ullathorne“It’s not acting in the traditional sense that my ‘character’ will barrel along come what may,” he says.  “It depends on what happens between me and the audience.  When I performed in Leeds, The Red Shed were there.  When I get everyone to sing Solidarity Forever, the audience had to take over because I couldn’t get the words out.”

The opposite can also happen.  “Some nights – only very rarely – you feel the audience doesn’t deserve that raw thing you’re prepared to share.  That’s what happened in Cheltenham.  Afterwards, I sat in the dressing room, going: ‘You idiot, why couldn’t you commit for them?'”

Hearing Thomas talk so enthusiastically about The Red Shed, you sense this might be his finest work.  However, he’s reluctant to admit it.  “At the moment, we’ve got three things lined up, and I know when I’m in the middle of them they’ll be the most important thing in the world.  I’m proud of Bravo Figaro, Cuckooed and The Red Shed, which I see as a trilogy.  But equally, I’m proud of the SOCPA show about the right to protest which resulted in changing the law.  And two-thirds of the way through the Ilisu Dam tour, all of the companies pulled out of this deal.  So I’m proud of various things at various moments.”

He pauses, acknowledging that – for a change – he’s being a little evasive.  “There’s also that whole Dudley Moore thing,” he says, “when comics are only as good as their last gig. So you’re constantly climbing a ladder, but the last rung you always pull away from yourself.”

Making predictions

So Thomas remains committed to producing new work, and says recent political events neither depress nor invigorate him.  “As far as I’m concerned, everyone’s out of step with me.  So there’ll always be missionary work.  But I understand Brexit.  I was considering voting ‘Out’ from a socialist perspective until about six weeks before.  Then I realised: I can’t support this because it’ll result in an extremely right-wing government, a rise in racism and Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.  I got two out of three.  I can see why people were attracted by it, but there’s an important point about consequences.”

As reported previously, some have complained about British comedy’s failure to respond to Brexit as strongly as US comedians have to Trump.  Thomas disputes this, blaming the media’s obsession with television.  “There are always exciting performers doing brave new work.  Look at Bridget Christie and Bilal Zafir.  We just have a shit bunch of TV compared to America.

“Television in this country has moments when it succeeds by accident.  Things like Father Ted and Chris Morris came out of a very interesting time at Channel 4 – very specific circumstances and brave commissioning editors.  But generally people are terrified of being blamed for failure, so there’s no appetite to take a risk.  You’ve only got to look at the David Walliams Nightly Show to see that.  I watched the first one completely by accident and I was really shocked by how shit it was.  Will the UK ever produce a prime-time show like The Daily Show, John Oliver or Saturday Night Live?  The answer’s no, because it takes a huge amount of money, time, commitment and real precision.”

However, Thomas knows the danger in crystal ball gazing, a point emphasised in the show he’s developing for later this year.  “It’s called Prediction, because no one really guessed in 2015 what would be happening now.  So we’re going to ask people to write down what they think will happen over the next two years, and use those predictions to create a picture of the world.”

Once more, inspiring and engaging people remains a key aim.  “One of the ways they measure children’s psychological wellbeing is whether they can picture the world when they’re older.  That’s kind of what I’m doing with that show, saying: ‘Where do you want to go?’  I know a lot of people feel disillusioned, but there are always options.”

Mark Thomas is performing The Red Shed at 7.30pm at Battersea Arts Centre until 11th March 2017, with an additional performance at 3pm on the last day.  For tickets, head here.  To see the full tour schedule, head to Mark’s official website. For more information, follow @MarkThomasInfo on Twitter.

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