Mark Thomas has always combined this warm and grainy geniality, of which a puppyish eagerness to please is perhaps the softest part; with a terrific energy and skilled showmanship, of which lightning traces of political anger are the hardest. The kind of crusader for social justice you’d want to have a pint of ale with, it was through a blokey honesty that he would undertake the info-war; like a kind of very British Yippee (less of the “yippee!” more “hmmmm, okay”) or a class-clown Yes Men (“Indeed maybe not Sir!”) he went to the heart of the establishment with the long-running television show Comedy Product making Channel 4 a brighter more devious place in the ’90s, his investigative journalism, and his plethora of one man shows taking journeys into the arms trade or along the perimeter of the “Israeli Defence Wall” in his Extreme Rambling here last year.
“The show starts with the sound of my dad breathing” announces the ringmaster of middle-class conscience sombrely, and immediately, over the rasping sound of an old man struggling for air, and a large backdrop of a barrel chested bearded man with a pens tucked in an upper pocket, the signal is clear – this is going to be different form the “culture-war in the trenches of alternative comedy” as Thomas puts it in the brief biography he allows himself here (and thankfully, this is no indulgent auto-biography of the type peddled by many comics-gone-straight). Instead this is a focussed, crafted, journey into a defining relationship of a man’s life; making Bravo: Figaro something of a Flying Scotsman of a departure for Thomas. This is the first show of his billed as theatre proper, lending license to deal with a very personal subject matter, his dying dad, through the vinyl crackle of Verdi and Rossini.
And yet not much of it is concerned with opera: Thomas enthuses as a fan with deep with sighs of wonderment and awe, his genuine excitement in describing the Death of Klinghoffer almost makes you want to rush out and stage it yourself. But this is mostly about theatre, allowing Thomas leeway to explore avenues more gently, inducting the ruminating past-tense, removing the requirement to fly as the comedy crow does directly to a punchline; and so we get a portrait of a childhood in working class Britain full of Coventry canals, scrap-metal, skips and Swarfega. Amongst this Thomas retains his many-plumed showman’s hat, a recurring line is “for the younger members of the audience”, to describe arcane references such as a vinyl record and the word “manufacturing” (“for the younger members of the audience we used to make things and have communities” delivered totally off-hand in that slightly camp schoolmaamish way which suggests a ticking off that is as joking as it is genuinely angry).
And Thomas is some performer, a throatily energetic guy with a beautiful pressure of thought, swift with double-articulations and asides; a career of needing to convey political anger in places where that sort of thing is a major turn-off, has rendered him astonishingly deft; not just at remaining likeable but as an actor in packing utterances with emotional nuance. He is a past-master of representing the idioms of class. Perhaps here however, a shift from the comic to the tragic does not quite yield the same results. There are genuinely moving moments: the recorded voice of his mother, finely intercut with Thomas’s stage patter, the final heartbreaking gesture with his father’s opera magazines chief amongst them. And yet there is also some rigidity in the one-note tone of sadness, which isn’t quite made rich enough, nor plainspeaking enough; and there’s a nagging feeling that Thomas is holding much back as he approaches his father. Mozart wrote The Count in Don Giovanni as his father died, but here is a much more hedged invocation. And while we get this real sense of the kind of respect that is not earned but runs unbrookably deep, the simple fact that “he is my father”; and these sneaking ideas that the dislocation between father and son; there is also the feeling that Thomas is slightly trepidatious of getting deep, perhaps wary of the power of representation he wields here over the old patriarch.
Some of the old formula remains: we are treated to a project as, in the name of rapprochement rather than regicide, Thomas organises an opera concert for his dad in a bungalow in Bournemouth – “a gift you couldn’t buy and sell”. With a great beard-stroking impression of Mike Figgis, Thomas makes some mileage from the comedy of manners that results from him taking his Royal Opera House commission to the small living room, with crotch-sniffing dogs and toilet-occupying dads. The memorable bits however remain the sharp one-liners, and the physical skill he has as a storyteller (both come together in one lovely moment, where urgent fauntleroy mincing backs the suggestion that if we do think “we’re all middle class now – tell that to your cleaner, she’ll be fucking delighted.”) Should Thomas allow us to feel more, and works to apply all the craft and invention to theatre that he brought to his multiform political comedy, there’s perhaps more to come from the drama school granduate who was once, as he exuberantly confides, all about the “Brecht and drugs and rock and roll.”