It’s hard to believe Mark Thomas is now 60: the man is aging well, although you do worry at times he is one political rant away from a coronary! It’s even harder to believe that England & Son is the first time he has forayed into performing someone else’s work. What isn’t so difficult to believe, though, is that his performance is filled with all the same passion and energy that he puts into everything he does. And it’s that passion and energy that really carries this piece, his comic timing, honed from years of stand up, shining through; not one single beat missed.
But before all that, there is of course the usual Mark Thomas opening act, a prelude to the main performance. He has the packed audience in the palm of his hand as he tells us what is going to happen, the most important part being that he’ll be signing purchased playscripts afterwards. We also get to hear a little about how the play came about. It was written specifically for him by Ed Edwards after a chance meeting when Thomas was coming out of Edward’s The Political History of Smack and Crack. And it’s smack and crack that play an important part in this story, its origins in workshops for addicts that Thomas and Edwards are now involved in.
England & Son follows an all too familiar and harrowing story of how young lives are destroyed even before they have really begun. In this case the youth is the Son of the title, whilst his dad is England. Thomas expertly delivers the story of Son’s childhood, his desire to get his dad’s approval shining through as clearly as the fact his dad is not a healthy influence.
It could all be rather depressing – and in many ways it is, as we watch the young life spiral out of control, unable to stop himself sabotaging the one chance to break the cycle that unexpectedly comes his way. Yet in Thomas’ hands the bleakness is tempered with plenty of humour in the telling of the story that means we don’t watch with dread, but rather with admiration of a performance from a man at the top of his game.
Perhaps it’s the freedom of not performing his own work – being less personally involved in the story than in his past pieces – that frees Thomas up to deliver such an incredible performance. Director Cressida Brown, who has also directed Edwards previous writing, further assists in pulling out every ounce of performance from Thomas. He is pushed around the stage to use every corner, made to jump and leap in ways a 60-year-old perhaps shouldn’t be doing, whilst incorporating light and sound to heighten tension; the constant background drone there to put us slightly on edge from the outset.
It all allows Thomas to absorb himself into the characters more fully than if it were his own story he was telling. Of course, the stand-up comedian is never far from the surface, unable to resist breaking that fourth wall to help with a ringing phone mid performance!
Thomas and Edwards is a partnership we never knew we needed. England & Son has all the feel of a Thomas show and yet takes him in a direction he would never have taken alone. Thomas brings the work alive in a way that makes you hope this isn’t the last time he steps into another man’s shoes. After this performance, I’m hoping he might tackle some Shakespeare too!
Written by: Ed Edwards
Directed by: Cressida Brown
Produced by: HOME Manchester and Tin Cat Entertainment
England & Son plays at Arcola Theatre until 25 November, before playing at Sheffield (28 & 29 Nov) and Edinburgh (5 – 9 Dec). Further information and full tour dates can be found here.