I always feel a little under-qualified to review comedy because I've never been the comedian of the group. I've never been the one person in a circle of five to ten friends, say, who focused everyone else's attention, held it, and then caused them to erupt into gales of laughter. Mark Thomas clearly has always been that person. He strides confidently onto the stage, is cheery and welcoming and has, within seconds, taken control of the voices and movement in the room. We are his. We do what he asks of us. Luckily, all he asks is that we listen, and chuckle as and when we feel the need - but if he asked us to join him in a conga line, I'm not sure we would need much encouragement. (Luckily someone has turned the music off, though, so he isn't tempted.) I did not expect this. Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with his work, but I expected him to either preach, or take a politically cynical line. That is simply how I think of political comedy. Mark Thomas gently suggests that I rethink my position (he didn't talk to me individually, but I imagine this is what he would have said).
It's not that he shies away from making strong political statements: the Israel-Palestine Separation Wall is illegal. It causes more problems than it fixes. The Israeli soldiers are often painted in an unflattering light. However, we get the impression he is trying to understand in no more or less judgmental a way than you or I might, and this puts us at ease. When he mocks the man who wants to extend Jewish Israeli ownership of land until it stretches 'as far as Jordan' to the East and 'to Baghdad!' in the South, he does it with a (grudging, but obvious) respect for the man's other qualities and good grace. The only times he is angry or disgusted, we expect it. He has 'done his homework', so to speak, and subtly indicates his political opinions without challenging our own.
That is not to say that he is uncontroversial or boring: even when we leave aside the stories which are familiar in their humour (drawing on awkward moments with strangers, or the ever-amusing dynamic between two people who don't speak the same language) he is often genuinely funny. This is partly because his material is, in a dark and slightly depressing way. The ridiculousness of the situation either side of the wall is apparent in, for instance, the Palestinian school whose playing field has been cut in two by the wall (leaving one goal post in Gaza, and one in Israel) - or in the way he suddenly finds himself using a group of 7-year-olds as human shields.
But Mark Thomas doesn't do the obvious thing and employ that black humour typical of 'disaster comedy', which always causes mild-to-advanced discomfort because one can never quite tell if they're laughing at despicable human suffering or not. Instead, he is sombre in highlighting the particularly depressing parts of his trip; such as when Palestinian children are attacked by Israeli settlers every morning on their way to school. Oddly, though, these forays into the macabre or slightly depressing play an important role in keeping us intellectually engaged with his broader narrative, putting the humour in context. It also means that we don't expect to be laughing all the time, so he can keep utilising the element of surprise. For this and many other reasons, this is a much more sophisticated brand of comedy than the average stand-up and worth catching the next time he's in town.