Writer: Mark Thomas
Director: Joe Douglas
Reviewer: Fergus Morgan
Mark Thomas is pretty much a minor deity at the Edinburgh Fringe. His shows play to packed houses and his audiences invariably givehim a standing ovation, just as they did last year, just as they will next year. And, frankly, it’s all very well deserved. Thomas is always a charismatic, commanding on stage presence, with a genial, self-deprecating wit and a diamond-edged axe to grind.
Thomas’ latest show, The Red Shed, is a tribute to the Wakefield Labour Club, which artfully interweaves several different narrative strands and is laced with his quintessentially caustic humour throughout. The largest strand follows Thomas’ attempt to verify a particularly specific, particularly moving memory of the miner’s strike. A memory Thomas cherishes. A memory that may or may not have become embellished in the years he has been recollecting it for audiences.
As Thomas recalls his charmingly rugged journey to establish the truth, he sprinkles in anecdotes and asides, delving entertainingly into his experiences as a student activist under Thatcher, into the history of the Wakefield Labour Club, and into contemporary politics. Performing on a bright crimson set, he ropes in audience members to help him tell these stories, supplying them with an array of masks and directing them with endearing care throughout.
What takes shape on stage is an engaging 80 minutes of energetic, creative storytelling that flaunts Thomas’ ability to convincingly evoke scenes and characters from his past but loses its fundamental message – some woolly, ambiguous sentiment about the need for truth in the narratives that shape our politics – along the way. There’s also an unshakeable sense of arbitrariness to The Red Shed. Entertaining though Thomas’ quest to uncover the reality underneath his own myth is, it feels a little like a Dave Gorman book: interesting, but not particularly vital.
As with most of Thomas’ shows, there is a palpable socialist crackle to proceedings. He cultivates and channels this well for the most part, elegantly raising it to a pitch with fierce, political rants, before allowing it to subside back into the story. It’s only when he prises the lid off and cajoles the audience into vocalising their shared sympathies that things get a bit cringe-worthy: Thomas may be preaching to the choir, but conducting his crowd in a chorus of Solidarity Forever is an awkward, misguided note in an otherwise well-pitched performance.
Runs until 28August 2016 | Image: Sally Jubb