Mark Thomas is a very funny man.
His impressions deft, his timing smart, his audience interaction of the joshing variety – Thomas may have barbs for politicians but doles out nothing more than light ribbing to late-comers or forgot-to-silence-phone-owners. He seems like a kind man and perhaps all the gentler for the tale he is about to tell.
On tour with England and Son, written for him by Ed Edwards, Thomas adds a ‘first act’ of a lights-up introduction spoken directly to the audience. He holds forth, enacting various characters he’s encountered in the drug treatment facilities where Edwards, in recovery himself, works. They all have extreme stories that they need to share, to get to their truth, as part of the process of getting clean and sober. Thomas and Edwards have workshopped with these fellow travellers to create the ‘second act’ England and Son an extant one-act, one-man play that Thomas explains is still evolving.
The warm-up, which is both droll and edgy is also extremely explanatory: the quintessence of telling over showing even if he spins a fine yarn and does great impressions. Perhaps this intro is to offer a lighter touch before the main work but already the tragic potential is everywhere – a point he underscores as he explains the recovery group are learning 5-act structure with guilt, shame and denial indelibly written on the white board they use to plot their stories. The atmosphere is therefore intimate, confessional, raw and profoundly sad.
After the interval, the play runs. Basically, the entire performance is a trigger warning. It’s filled with every trauma and degradation – a relentless tale of a boy who never stood a chance. Thomas’ performance is energetic, compelling and utterly committed. I found the horror and resultant pathos almost emotionally unbearable – like the horrifying scenes in various Dickens novels where things get really grim for kids but without the comfort of knowing the episode would meet some comic relief somewhere.
Edwards’ rage at the sins of Thatcherism, class structure and empire are present but not as relentless as the pure tragedy of the story.
I wonder how I would have received the performance if I’d not been treated to the preamble? If instead there’s been a chat or a Q&A at the end? The sense of the work being a draft came across strongly but for that, I don’t fault it. As a searing tale of desperation and despair, Edwards’ voice – enacted by Thomas – was real and strong. Yet because of this reality, it was painful. As an example of the dramatisation and causes of misery, England and Son succeeds. However, this play offers very little diversion, and despite Edwards’ recovery (a topic the work doesn’t explore) it also offers very little hope. This is a very sad play starring a very funny man.
Review by Mary Beer
With some deep, dark laughs – and some deep, dark love – along the way, England & Son emerges from characters Mark knew in his childhood and Ed’s lived experience in jail. Prepare to be taken on a kaleidoscopic odyssey where disaster capitalism, empire, stolen youth and stolen wealth merge into the simple tale of a working-class boy who just wants his dad to smile at him.
HOME, Manchester and Tin Cat Entertainment present
Mark Thomas in England & Son
By Ed Edwards
14 November – 25 November 2023