Moving from the political to the personal has reaped rewards for Mark Thomas in this very poignant and very funny show, says Paul Fleckney
This is a very different Mark Thomas show to what you might be used to. For the first time that I can remember, Thomas is doing a show that’s more personal than political. He’s also encroaching into the world of theatre: with a set, recorded pieces of dialogue and a script that is as loaded with emotional heft as jokes.
The upshot? A brilliant, compelling show that even Tories will like. The focus of the show is Mark’s father, Colin – the sort of man they don’t make any more: a bear of a man, “the ultimate bigot” according to his son, a builder, a fighter, a hard-left opera fan, and plenty more besides. A life lived big, and a tough act to follow.
Mark opens the door to the family home, telling the story of his father’s life (as he saw it) as Colin becomes increasingly unwell and elderly. The focus gradually shifts towards a magnificent gift that Mark bought him, which I won’t spoil here. He replays snatches a poignant conversation between him and his parents, and a recording of his brother chips in from the other side of the stage. The stage is strewn with boxes and pieces of bric a brac, which Thomas occasionally perches on one to engage in the “conversations”, before returning to the audience to move the story on.
Thomas has always been a tremendous storyteller, and with this amount of material to work with, he doesn’t let you down. He’s a master of the art of affectionately caricaturing a person, wringing the most out of each moment, and lurching the listener between joy and tragedy and whatever emotion he is pitching for. You can kind of see the joins, you can tell it’s artifice, but it’s incredibly effective.
The tensions and high emotional stakes that are a part of family life are laid out bare, and the touching moments are as frequent as the funny ones. There is enough room for a few scalpel-like political jibes along the way, with the Lib Dems the getting it more than the right.
For me, Thomas has always been someone who slightly rubs me up the wrong way, without ever quite knowing why, though I have always hugely enjoyed his shows. He admits himself that this one – and the aforementioned gift – stroke his ego as much as they pay tribute to his father. And there is palpable tension between Thomas the ego-driven performer and Thomas the eldest child who is losing a colossal influence on his life. But he has managed to navigate those considerably choppy waters, to produce a show that, for Thomas, is a personal and professional triumph.
Mark Thomas is on at various times at the Traverse Theatre
Review written by Paul Fleckney