Director: Joe Douglas
Reviewer: Paul Maguire
There is much comedy and drama that comes out of adversity, and there can’t be many more wretched conditions in which to produce a stand up comedy show than a refugee camp in the West Bank.
Mark Thomas, the veteran political comedian, activist and journalist brings to The Lowry his production, Showtime From the Frontline. It is a play about how he set up a comedy club in a refugee camp in Jenin in the West Bank of Palestine.
The show challenges our preconceptions of what it is to be a refugee; they are not just faceless beneficiaries of western aid doled out by Bob Geldof. Thomas shows us that they are people with desires, emotions, and with aspirations to be creative and perform, to make themselves and others laugh and to ‘fight for freedom of expression in a place that doesn’t have much freedom’. All of this is done however, against a backdrop of intense suffering and desperation.
The production is a hybrid of a play and stand up comedy. Thomas is joined on stage by Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada who are aspiring members of the Jenin comedy club.
The majority of the first act is given up to stylised scene setting where they tell the story of how the Jenin comedy club came into being. It is a story based on tragedy due to the murder of Thomas’s friend the Palestinian director and filmmaker Juliano Mer-Khamis.
Several theatrical devices are employed during this time; stand up comedy, improvisation, narration, skilful and witty storytelling and the clever choreography of chairs on the sparsely set stage.
Early on Thomas makes a humorous reference to Brecht, and elements of this play very clearly come from the Brechtian Epic Theatre tradition. Just as you start to lose yourself in the comedy you are reminded of the tragic reality of life in the West Bank. A clip is played of Mer-Khamis’s documentary Arna’s Children, where a young boy, who Abu Alhayjaa gleefully informs us is his cousin, comically tells the filmmaker that he wants to act and become the ‘Palestinian Romeo’. As his picture fades, Thomas informs the audience that this child is now dead.
The second act begins with the three actors hilariously parodying the censorious members of the committee of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, who like three Palestinian Waldorf and Stadlers, criticise this new form of entertainment that they do not fully understand.
The rest of the act showcases the work of the comedians whose talents Thomas, together with Sam Beale, fostered and developed. Four appear via a video recording of the original show in Jenin and then first, Alaa Shehada and followed by Faisal Abu Alhayjaa, perform the sets they performed for the first time that night in The West Bank.
As well as delivering satire and comedy about the intifada and the Israeli occupation, the comedians also find humour in the mundane everyday subjects that are universal and funny in any culture; the search for love, family relationships and fart gags.
Thomas has described this production as ‘Werner Herzog meets Fame’ and that is exactly what it is; a set of determined characters with aspirations to perform and succeed in impossible circumstances.
This absorbing production focuses on the political and personal struggles of life in the occupied West Bank. The use of pathos and comedy let the audience see how, despite these tragic and almost unimaginably difficult circumstances, fun, humour wit and creativity, displayed by those who actually live there, can develop and thrive beyond what would be thought possible.
Reviewed on 13 March 2018 | Image: contributed