In Showtime from the Frontline, Mark Thomas returns with his trademark politically motivated, immaculately conceived, comedic style and his riskiest and bravest show to date.
As the show opens with Thomas’s characteristic conversational tone, the audience expects another well-crafted one-man show, a monologue detailing his latest anti-authoritarian high-jinks, until he welcomes to the stage his partners in crime and co-stars. This is a first for Thomas. Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shedhada join him all the way from the comedy club which Thomas and fellow comic Sam Beale forged in the Freedom Theatre acting school in a Palestine refugee camp in Jenin. As Thomas himself dryly enquires, ‘What could go wrong?’
He manoeuvres this political minefield with remarkable skill and diplomacy, particularly considering his fairly well-known opinions on the Israeli/Palestinian debate. Thomas does not ignore the politics, nor could he while delivering the context for the project, but this is not his focus. Any audience members fearing a left-wing tirade about the Israeli occupation will find themselves pleasantly surprised. What Thomas does instead is to draw attention to the ridiculous and, more specifically, the ridiculous in us all. He returns to the roots of satire and holds up a glass to humanity. Indeed, he is remarkably even-handed in his ridicule, thorough and meticulous in laughing at us all: Israelis, Palestinians, the ‘well-meaning’ Left, himself and the audience in front of him. This is highlighted beautifully by the opening to the second half where the three performers, taking on the characters of the grumpy freedom theatre board, mock themselves and each other as performers.
At the heart of the show is a message that undermines all human conflict and arbitrary human divisions: we are all the same, we are all people and we are all ludicrous. As such, the show is almost as much about challenging Western notions of what ‘these people’ are as it is about the conflict, which, in the wake of the terrifying spread of Islamophobia is extremely poignant. Don’t get me wrong, the show calls its viewers to reflect on the politics, but it does so through the telling of personal stories from those in the Freedom theatre and regaling us with Thomas’ own experiences.
Showtime from the Frontline is in equal measure heartwarming and heart-breaking with some truly humbling and terrible stories mixed into the comedy. But in this show every tragedy has its comic counterpart and the Palestinian people are shown to be deeply in touch with the hilarious silver linings of a dire situation, summed up nowhere more perfectly than in Faisal’s riff about the curfew imposed by the Israeli military leading to a skyrocketing Palestinian birth-rate – what else are they going to do!?
What is truly special about this show, and what sets it apart from Thomas’s other work is his willingness to relinquish the limelight to his co-stars. Despite frequent self-conscious questions about whether this was all about him, I think, it is abundantly clear that it isn’t. Thomas is not a comic missionary. He sets himself apart from other slightly self-indulgent efforts from Westerners to help… by actually helping. Thomas happily and proudly steps to the side and allows himself to be entirely upstaged by the enormous comic talents of Alaa and Faisal. Alaa, in particular, shines as an extraordinary comic performer, his physical style and immaculate creation of character is remarkable and brings the value of Thomas’s project into enormous clarity. This is a talent that might otherwise never have been discovered or even explored.
In the closing monologue Thomas comes to the crux of the matter. Comedy has the power to change things. Why? Because it’s scary. Nothing is more disarming to a ‘baddy’ than to laugh at them. It shows that you’re not scared, but deeper than that, it undermines them, it makes them feel silly. He ends with a list of funny people who have rattled authority enough to get them into real trouble. Mark Thomas, with this courageous and hugely important show, earns himself a place in the ranks of these comic pioneers, inviting us to laugh our way to victory.
Review by Rachel Sparkes
Dodging cultural and literal bullets, Israeli incursions and religion, Mark Thomas and his team set out to run a comedy club for two nights in the Palestinian city of Jenin. Only to find it’s not so simple to celebrate freedom of speech in a place with so little freedom.
Jenin refugee camp, home to Jenin Freedom Theatre and to people with a wealth of stories to tell. Mark tells this story alongside two of its actors and aspiring comics, Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada. A story about being yourself in a place that wants to put you in a box.
With sell-out shows, non-stop awards, the highest critical acclaim, his own TV and radio shows, numerous documentaries, published books, Guinness World Records, influencing changes in the law, creating manifestos and exposing arms trade dealers, it’s no wonder that Mark is one of the UK’s most recognised performers and influential activists. Marks’ book, Liar’s Quartet, is out via September Publishing.
Tues 10th -Sat 21st LONDON, Theatre Royal Stratford East