Mark Thomas is a man of many strands: stand-up comedian, political activist, campaigner, author, presenter, Guinness World Record holder for most protests in 24 hours – he really is a busy man. Thomas has focused of late on his unique brand of one-man plays, however, mixing comedy with social commentary and pure emotion in his works Bravo Figaro, about his father and opera, and Cuckooed, about a very personal betrayal. Now he is touring again with his newest piece The Red Shed, which sees him revisiting the place his comedy career began, and, as he explained in a recent chat about the show, was also home to his political awakening.
Chatting to Mark Thomas is a nervous experience as someone who has admired his work for too many years to mention – but thankfully, he’s amazingly disarming and relaxed. ‘I’ll let you know if I ever introduce a loyalty card,’ he jokes early on, as I mention having seen so many of his previous works.
But what can we expect from The Red Shed? ‘It’s my own particular mixture of stand-up and activism,’ Thomas describes. ‘Please don’t come if you are expecting stand-up. And don’t come, I repeat don’t come, if you watch Dave more than three times a week. It won’t be for you.’ Probably not a line most agents would want to hear uttered, but as Thomas, now in his 50s, has built a career being so direct, I expect his agent won’t be telling him to behave.
The Red Shed is billed as the third part of a trilogy that began with Bravo Figaro and Cuckooed. Was that always the intention from the beginning? ‘It kind of developed that way,’ he explains thoughtfully. ‘What connects all three shows is that they are about community, belonging and trust. They sit together nicely in that way. They’re a group of shows that are very personal and much more theatrical than any of my previous work. I’ve enjoyed working this way; it’s been different. They form a narrative of Britain.’
‘What connects [Bravo Figaro, Cuckooed, and The Red Shed] is that they are about community, belonging and trust. . . They form a narrative of Britain.’
And when Thomas describes his recent works as personal, he means it. Bravo Figaro chronicles his father’s love of opera alongside his decline into Alzheimer’s, while Cuckooed examines the betrayal Thomas felt by a close friend who was discovered to be spying on him by an arms company. On the face of it then: more personal and less political.
But Thomas quickly corrects me when I make such a suggestion. ‘I disagree. Both Bravo Figaro and Cuckooed were about politics. Bravo Figaro is about the working classes, opera and culture. The working class just aren’t meant to like opera, but my father did and he was working class. So it’s about class and that means politics. There is just no hiding from politics.’
So is Thomas concerned that his politics could put people off? ‘Couldn’t give a f**k’ is his blunt reply. ‘What’s been great, though, is that I’ve had Tory supporters come up to me after my shows and tell me they are reassessing their views on things that I’ve talked about. That’s great that people can come and think about these things.’
When asked whether The Red Shed will be as political, Thomas responds: ‘The Red Shed is a real club where I first did stand-up. It’s about going back to where it all started for me, and where I politically came of age.’ (So much for not being too political, then.) ‘It’s about going back to see how things have changed.’
‘I was looking to find a memory of that time,’ Thomas continues. ‘During a march to support the miners’ strike, we passed a primary school, and young children were singing solidarity songs. It was a defining moment for me, and I wanted to find that memory again, to find out how real it was. So the show is also about looking for that school and those children. But it’s also about Britain as it is now, a narrative of how we got here. It’s personal and moving. And it contains lots of singing. I want the audience joining in with that.’
Like Bravo Figaro and Cuckooed, The Red Shed takes Thomas further away from the stand-up of his earlier days and into more theatrical work. Is that more difficult as someone who began as a stand-up?
‘The shows and the stand-up are two very different things, like apples and oranges,’ Thomas emphasises. ‘It’s really hard to compare. It takes a major effort to create a show of any kind. With stand-up people think it’s easy, that these jokes just come out of nowhere. People have no idea how much work goes into them.’
‘It takes a major effort to create a show of any kind. With stand-up people think it’s easy, that these jokes just come out of nowhere. People have no idea how much work goes into them.’
The Red Shed’s development, for instance, ‘started life last October, when we started to record interviews and just organis[e] things. At that time we had no idea of where the story would go, it just developed. The original flyers gave very little information about the show, as at the start, we weren’t even sure where it was going to go. It was written up to the last minute. What happened as we were putting it together also becomes part of the story.’
That personal storytelling is another characteristic of Thomas’ work throughout his career. ‘Everything I do is storytelling, shows that involve things I’ve actually done,’ he explains. ‘For instance, I walked the Israeli Barrier, which became Extreme Rambling. And as with my other shows, it’s a personal narrative as well as covering politics.’
What’s also been interesting with Thomas’ more recent shows is their visual aspect. While the works are, for all intents and purposes, ‘one-man shows’, they’ve demanded other voices to allow the story to unfold. In Cuckooed, this was done through drawers that opened to reveal TV screens showing clips of the other people. Is this imaginative approach likely to continue in The Red Shed? Thomas clarifies that his shows ‘are all completely different. The form changes and develops over time. It would drive me nuts doing the same thing year after year. Too often people want to see you, but then expect you to be doing the same thing as you did last year, and then complain when it isn’t the same thing they saw last time.’
And once this show is over? ‘I have absolutely no idea what we will do next. There are a couple of ideas floating around right now, and we’re working on one that won’t happen until 2018. It can take a long time to put something together.’