Time has an enduring quality of moving full-circle. Once part of the new wave of 80s alternative comedians, whilst Mark Thomas’ political ire hasn’t diminished, he can now quite justifiably be seen as ‘old school’. By which I mean a comedian of substance rather than a ‘Russell comedian’ (© Stewart Lee), someone whose act consists of more than just telling jokes later to be shoe-horned into the next panel-game format.
Bravo Figaro is a show about Thomas’ relationship with his father, Colin, who has the terminal degenerative condition Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. When he was commissioned to write a piece for the Royal Opera House, Thomas took the opportunity to include, within his fee, the hire of a group of opera singers to perform in his father’s home. That show, as well as this, is essentially Mark’s goodbye to his father.
And yet there is nothing mawkish or sentimental about the narrative, interspersed as it is with both keen self-awareness and sharp social commentary. The central contradiction of his father, a staunchly working class and aggressively masculine man, enjoying the work of Rossini, Verdi et al offers an immediate structure to the story, but it is underscored by a frank honesty. Colin Thomas was often a bully, domestically violent against both his wife and children, so despite the warmth that his son obviously still feels, the show retains the detachment that all good comedy needs. Theirs is genuine humanity here, but because it is presented warts and all, it never veers into self-pity. And because Mark Thomas is such an energetic raconteur, full of eloquently curt asides (I’m more bohemian working class: if John Lewis opened up a tattoo parlour I’d be first in the queue) it never feels maudlin or self-indulgent either.In fact, there is something wonderfully warm about Mark Thomas as a performer. Beneath the bluff, he seems to genuinely enjoy himself, and in a small venue like the North Wall he can develop a real intimacy with the audience. He called the first half of his performance tonight a ‘warm up’, in which he discussed his new habit of putting spoilers in particularly bad books (David Nicholls’ One Day is the template), and some of the articles that made it into the final cut of his People’s Manifesto. This was a series of suggestions from audiences around the country for what they would do to put the country right, and included dressing leopards up as foxes to scare the gentry, and forcing those guilty of homophobic crimes to serve their sentence in drag. All eminently sensible, as well as very funny. Radio 4 have, thankfully, commissioned a new series too. It’s the perfect platform for a comedian with a persistent concern for social justice, and a well-judged appreciation of the absurd. But we knew Mark Thomas could be funny on a political theme; tonight he showed he could be funny on a personal one as well.