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Mark Thomas: “I’m obsessed with how you break out of that individualistic stand-up model and involve people.”

| Comedy, Spoken Word | 25/10/2017

Mark Thomas 1 - PLEASE CREDIT Jane Hobson

Mark Thomas has returned to London with A Show That Gambles on the Future, exploring people’s hopes and fears for the coming years.  The show, which varies dramatically from night to night, is an interesting departure from his recent scripted performances but has injected Thomas with enthusiasm for unpredictability.  Ahead of the run at Leicester Square Theatre until 28th October, he spoke to Ian Cater about stand-up comedy’s limitations, getting laughed at Up North and the price of Freddo Frog chocolate bars. 

If we learnt anything from last year, it’s that making predictions is a mug’s game.  Unless you get them right of course, which – despite the off-target examples of Michael Fish, Kaiser Chiefs and Dick Advocaat – people do manage from time to time.  And that’s what Mark Thomas is asking his audiences to attempt in A Show That Gambles on the Future.

Each night, Thomas asks attendees to write down some forecasts, the best of which he riffs on at length and opens up to general discussion.  At the end of the show, the audience gets to choose which prediction Thomas should bet on at the bookies, with all winnings going to charity.

It’s a refreshingly simple idea that relies heavily on Thomas’ ability to think on his feet, as he only has thirty minutes to see the suggestions and plan some sort of structure.  “We invariably head off at tangents and that structure falls by the wayside,” he says.  “But that’s great because I just love interacting with audiences.  It keeps things so fresh each night and within each show.  I mean, we had one where we segued straight from a discussion about Noam Chomsky to me conducting a group rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody.  Where else would you get that?”

Back to the future

Thomas first came to the nation’s attention nearly twenty-five years ago as an outspoken socialist stand-up, but since 2000 he’s honed a passionate form of scripted storytelling that’s much closer to theatre than comedy.  This approach has received widespread critical acclaim, and his three most personal productions – Bravo Figaro!, Cuckooed and The Red Shed – have been collated in The Liar’s Quartet and filmed for an upcoming DVD release.

On the face of things, A Show That Gambles on the Future is a departure from this, relying more on the 54-year-old’s stand-up skills than his ability to craft and deliver a moving monologue.  But Thomas also works in a number of stories about growing up with his unpredictable and violent father – a subject addressed with searing honesty in Bravo Figaro!.

Mark Thomas 3 - PLEASE CREDIT Jane Hobson“Given we’re talking about the future at a time when people feel disillusioned, I thought that was appropriate,” he explains.  “Because we’re looking at living in volatile environments and I’ve had plenty of experience of that.”

Thomas says his show also continues a seventeen-year quest to expose stand-up comedy’s limitations.  “It’s a very individualist construct and Thatcherite business model.  In the ’80s, loads of fringe theatre companies like Cunning Stunts were stripped of funding, so they went to the wall.  We lost scriptwriters, editors, directors and casts.  We lost that co-operative and collaborative way of working.  And we ended up with a single stand-up who just needs a mic and a beer company to sell pints in the corner.

“I’m obsessed with how you break out of that individualistic stand-up model and involve people.  How do you broaden the experience?

“I love the fact that The Red Shed wouldn’t work without the audience helping.  I love the fact that in Cuckooed you see my friends’ faces on the screens.  I love the fact that in Bravo Figaro! I get to talk to my parents onstage.  And I love the way that my new show relies on the audience’s suggestions.  It becomes collaborative and I love that.  Some comedians have this ridiculous idea the audience is their enemy.  These people have arranged baby sitters and taxis to come out to see you.  Look at the effort they’ve made.  They’re not your enemies; they’re your friends.”

Points of view

That may be truer for Thomas than for most, with many members of his audience typically sharing his left-wing leanings and passions.  However, the new show has been noteworthy for its diverse views, and for Thomas’ willingness to elicit and debate them.  Even The Telegraph gave the show a four-star rating.  “Did they?  Bless ’em,” he chuckles.  “Mind you, the last time they gave me five stars I wrote to them and said: ‘If you do that again, I’ll sue.'”

Mark Thomas 2 - PLEASE CREDIT Jane HobsonAlthough he can occasionally be brusque, Thomas is in fine form when we speak, thriving in his new show’s unpredictability.  “I’ve definitely had to stay sharp with this one, especially when loads of Tories came to see it in Edinburgh.  That was good fun.  Why wouldn’t you want people to express themselves?  I want dialogue, whether it’s with people who think like me or not.

“That said, I’ve brushed over some rather extreme predictions, like one about white genocide.  Although on another night I might have asked the person to identify themselves and defend their position.”

Certain topics repeatedly arise, giving Thomas a platform to rant about the likes of Theresa May, Brexit and Donald Trump.  “We won money on Theresa May getting a majority of twenty or under, but couldn’t get odds on Trump being found dazed and confused in the Arizona Desert by the end of the year.  There tend to be a fair number of political predictions.  We got decent odds on the Irish abortion laws being repealed within four years.  That’s really exciting because not only would it be a great thing, but we might also have a kerching moment.”

But the show isn’t solely concerned with serious subjects.  “I love the weird and wonderful suggestions as well,” he says.  “We got odds of two to one on Britain abolishing the metric system within four years.  We also had a bizarre prediction that Freddo Frog chocolate bars’ RRP would go from 30p to 35p within a year.  That actually prompted quite interesting arguments about how we measure inflation and the general process of shrinkflation.  So it’s never dull.”

Our friends in the North

Another reason for Thomas’ upbeat mood when we speak is that he’s just returned from filming the final performance of The Red Shed – his powerful homage to the Wakefield Labour Club where Thomas first ‘found his politics’ and became involved in the 1984 Miners’ Strike (see our review here).

“We wanted to put this compilation DVD together to have a body of work in one place that’s different from the other stuff I do.  And we had to have the DVD performance in Wakefield.  We just had to.  Performing it back at the Wakefield Theatre Royal was just amazing.  I first went there in 1983 for a student project, when it was a complete wreck.  I remember the caretaker taking me in and showing me this bomb site.  There were broken chairs everywhere and an overwhelming stench of pigeon shit and rat’s piss.  Then the caretaker got all misty-eyed, pointed at the dilapidated stage and said: ‘We booed Charlie Chaplin off here.’  Now it’s been done up, the theatre’s a beautiful, amazing place.  But I like to think that quote sums up Wakefield nicely.”

The performance was extremely emotional, as many of the people who ‘appear’ in the show (voiced by Thomas and represented by volunteers wearing masks of their faces) were actually present in the audience.  But unlike one previous performance in Leeds (discussed here), Thomas managed to hold it together.  “That emotion’s unavoidable but it also generates an awful lot of fun, as although the troughs are magnified, the peaks are too.  And you’re pushing at an open door as they know the story.  It’s their story.”

“At the end of the show, I got carried away and invited everyone down to the Red Shed for drinks afterwards.  It was the most memorable night, totally heaving, people spilling out onto the streets.  But for me the highlight was when I went to the bar to get a pickled egg.  The barmaid said, “That’ll be 50p, love,” but I only had a twenty pound note.  So this cheer went up around the bar: ‘Hey, look at this fucking southern bastard trying to get a pickled egg with a twenty!’  As much as they accept me up there, I’ll always be a flash southern bastard.”

Mark Thomas is performing ‘A Show That Gambles on the Future’ from 19.00 at Leicester Square Theatre until 28th October.  For tickets, head here.  To see the full tour schedule, head to Mark’s official website.  And for more information on Mark’s myriad projects, follow @MarkThomasInfo on Twitter.   

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