Comedians Mark Thomas and Ross Sutherland debuting theatre shows at Fringe 2012
Mark Thomas' Edinburgh show based on his father's degenerative illness
This article is from 2012.
We know Mark Thomas. The radical, left-wing comedian and activist famously drove a tank disguised as an ice cream van up Whitehall in a televised attempt to have it exported to Iraq. More recently, he has been doing stage shows recounting his experiences walking the Israeli separation barrier ‘for fun’.
However, his latest show, Bravo Figaro!, which plays at the Traverse Theatre throughout this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, subverts expectations. Subtitled, ‘how to put on an opera in a bungalow in Bournemouth’, the piece is a deeply personal exploration of Thomas’s relationship with his father.
A one-time Tory builder, and an extremely hard task-master throughout his son’s childhood, Thomas’ dad is now suffering with the degenerative illness Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP). A difficult father-son relationship is considered in light, not only of the father’s illness, but also of his love of opera.
‘This is a story that is hugely personal,’ says Thomas. ‘It’s about my dad’s situation as it changes, and our relationship.
‘We’ve done a few preview shows, and what’s really shocked me is that, after I’ve talked about something so personal, the audience reciprocate. People come up afterwards and they want to talk about what’s happening to their parents, and the illnesses that their folks have had.’
As this is a Mark Thomas show, it will come as little surprise that the personal is also political. 'I don’t think the show is apolitical,’ he insists. ‘I think any show that involves a working-class man who leaves school at 14, with no qualifications, and discovers a love of opera is political. That’s just not on the radar as a subject.’
The show also has a campaigning dimension. Thomas is working with the PSP Association, who are sending doctors along to the show. The aim is to raise both awareness of the illness and funds for research. ‘It’s an unknown disease compared to things like Motor Neurone Disease or Multiple Sclerosis,’ says the comedian, ‘but, actually, it’s as prevalent as Motor Neurone.’
If first accounts from people coming out of the preview shows are anything to go by, Traverse audiences can expect a very funny, inspiring and moving experience.
Where Thomas is applying his established techniques of storytelling and campaigning to a very personal subject, acclaimed young writer/performer Ross Sutherland (creator of the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe hit The Three Stigmata of Pacman) overturns our expectations of comedy by repeating the on-stage death of a fictional stand-up comic. In Comedian Dies in the Middle of a Joke (at the Pleasance Dome throughout the Fringe), the audience play various roles – from a barman, to a heckler, to the comedian, Joe ‘Pops’ Pooley, himself – as we watch the performer die on stage seven times.
‘I keep thinking of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day,’ says Sutherland. ‘My show has the same sort of narrative process, really. You’ve got the frustration, at the start, of being sent back to the beginning. Hopefully, by the end of it, you’re carving ice sculptures and catching kids falling out of trees.’
The difference here is that it’s live. As a theatre maker, Sutherland is working without a safety net. 'I was interested in how stand-ups repeat their material, but also how it changes over the course of a run,’ Sutherland explains. ‘I wanted to do something that let an audience into that process.’
The way he lets us in – after some introductory compering by himself, and an initial performance of Pooley’s set by an actor – is to invite six audience members to perform the comic’s material, reading it from an autocue.
‘It’s not fair to drop an audience member in completely blind,’ says the writer. ‘So, a stooge does the set first, so everyone gets to see it once through. From then on, it’s done by audience members. So, very quickly, the show leaves our control.’
The dangers, not least of a destructive egotist derailing the show in an attempt to make their name as the next Frankie Boyle, are clear to Sutherland. He has, he believes, engineered a structure which makes the piece ‘self regulating’. ‘If one audience member goes off-script and starts improvising, it usually goes so terribly that subsequent “comedians” snap back to following the autocue. Audience members learn from each others’ mistakes.’
Bravo Figaro!, Traverse Theatre, 228 1404, 4–26 Aug (not 6, 13), times vary, £18–£20 (£13–£15). Preview 3 & 4 Aug, £13 (£6).
Comedian Dies in the Middle of a Joke, Pleasance Dome, 556 6550, 4–27 Aug (not 13), 2.30pm, £9.50–£10.50 (£8.50–£9.50). Previews until 3 Aug, £5.