Mark Thomas comes from an, unfortunately, diminishing line of alternative comedians who use their voice and their audience to try to bring about social and political change, to fight the illiberal, the bullies of the world. His work is filled with an urgency and a fight for change that makes it gripping. This is why he is best known for his political stand up comedy and his activism. Mark Thomas often performs in Reading, whether at the Concert Hall, at RISC or more recently at South Street, and his shows never fail to be a thought and action provoking, and extremely funny, whilst also giving a voice to the disenfranchised, disadvantaged and dispossessed. He is also, undoubtedly a consummate performer.
Bravo Figaro is something quite different, and yet utterly recognisably Mark Thomas, and, as always, hilarious and cleverly written. Mark’s work is always painfully honest and vitally important, but he is normally telling someone else’s story. This new piece, still painfully honest, tells his own story and is all the more touching for it. The end result is a rapid, poetic, lyrical story, told with energy and drive, and speckled with humanness and warmth. It is a piece about the legacy that our parents leave traced across our personalities, the good and the bad, because of them and despite them.
Bravo Figaro is the story of Mark’s father, a ‘character’, a self-employed builder and a skilled craftsman, loyally working class, a staunch supporter of hard graft, and with a dangerous temper. A man who was full of dichotomies, who played opera on his building site, who valued demanding, physical and profitable labour over any other, but spent his hard earned money visiting Glyndebourne and complaining about the prices. Through opera, a man who was filthy from a building site every day, found a delicate beauty and revelled in it. A man who, once so present that the family would creep about him so as not to stir his temper, slowly disappeared from within himself because of progressive supranuclear palsy.
The piece is crafted with no small nod to stand up comedy, but it is firmly in the genre of theatre, it is story telling in its truest form. Stripped back, uncluttered by complicated theatrical devices, he introduces us to his father, his mother, his brother, and by default, himself. From within a sparingly decorated set of memorabilia from his childhood, the voices of his family float out, via pre-recorded interviews. Mark’s narrative, his comment and reflection, is delivered at his usual fast, almost breathless pace. It is still laced with political comment and his usual searing, hilarious wit, but it is also poignant and delicate and characterful. The humour in this writing is of the highest quality, told through character and bitter satire, the sadness it is interwoven with heightens each extreme of emotion as we are carefully guided from one to the other. When music appears it is, of course, opera, and it is loud and strong, and sparingly used.
We see Mark Thomas as a theatre performer in this piece, he is ‘acting’, it feels more rehearsed than his stand up comedy, although I suspect that is more to do with how comfortable he is as a stand up and how easy he makes it look, but his performance here has a vulnerability that is gently moving.
This piece is not a glowing homage to a wonderful man; his father was not, by any means, perfect. Instead, it is a glowing homage to the power of human beings to forgive, or to manage alongside something unforgivable. Like grief, that never leaves, we simply learn to live around the immovable obstacles in our life, and the journey it makes us take is all the richer for it, even if we don’t see it until much further down the road. It is the voice of Mark’s brother, speaking from within a glowing wooden ark that their father made, that expresses this concept so well, when he says ‘he had a real temper, but I don’t like to talk about it, because he’s my dad and I love him’.
Bravo Figaro’s revival tour opened at South Street Arts Centre to a packed audience and is going on a short tour. Check the website for details.
A version of this article was published by The British Theatre Guide