Mark Thomas talks class, comedy and The Red Shed with Northern Soul
Wakefield Labour Club is a 47-foot long wooden hut near the city centre which was formerly an army barracks. Since 1966, it’s been a popular social hub. It’s painted a distinctive pillar-box red and, as you might expect, the locals all know it as The Red Shed.
The Red Shed has a special significance for Mark Thomas. During the early 1980s, when he was studying theatre arts at the nearby Bretton Hall College of Education, he joined up as a member of the club. Before long, he found himself staging his first faltering public performances there. Last year, to mark the Red Shed’s 50th anniversary, Thomas debuted a new live show all about his relationship with the club, his friendships with some of the members, and his exploration of a particular poignant memory of joining miners as they walked back to a local pit.
Thomas is now taking the show out on a national tour and, as ever, it’s not that easy to categorise exactly what it is that he does. That’s a situation he’s perfectly happy with, though.
Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul, Thomas says: “What’s really exciting it is that nobody quite knows how to describe what I do at the moment. That’s lovely. I absolutely adore that. I just think, if you can’t quite get a grip on it, that’s really your problem.”
When Thomas first made his name in the early 90s, it was as a stand-up comedian, albeit one with a sharp political edge. His much-admired Channel 4 TV series The Mark Thomas Comedy Product continued to blend politics with humour, but by the fourth series it underwent a name-change to become The Mark Thomas Product. It wasn’t that comedy was off the agenda – his shows remain hugely entertaining and often very funny. But the gear change freed him up to explore other avenues apart from the purely comedic. In this respect, perhaps, he’s harking back to his Bretton Hall days and channelling his inner drama student.
“You’re absolutely right,” he says. “Yeah, I think so. You can do shows which are emotionally complex as well as politically full of ideas. You can have scenes, you can plant notions. It’s great. No-one else does shows like that, so, you know, I’m happy.”
However, Thomas has never lost his knack for getting a laugh while making a point. Last March, he played The Lowry just after Salford City Council introduced its controversial ‘swearing ban’. His response was to lead audience members in a sweary singalong of Frère Jacques. Donations were collected in a swear box and the funds put aside to pay off any fines which might result from the ban. So far, no-one has needed to draw on them.
The first half of the Red Shed show is a more informal, stand-up style section, with the ‘story’ piece itself reserved for the second half. At first, Thomas is keen to tell audiences, in a self-deprecating sort of way, that they should bear with him because the latter half is the best bit. It gets a big laugh, but he’s not really joking.
“There’s no side to that,” he says. “That’s just the truth. It’s like, this is where I’m heading, this is what I do and I’m really glad that I do it. There are stand-ups who are going, ‘why can’t we get on in theatres?’, and there are people in theatre going, ‘why can’t we get to the audience that stand-ups get to?’. For me, I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. The shows we’re producing are emotionally competent and exciting and they ring true with people. They’re peppered with documented fact and truth. For me, that’s really exciting. I think people realise that what we’re talking about is true and that’s really important.”
Thomas has won major plaudits for his recent live shows Bravo Figaro about his late father’s love of opera, and Cuckooed, concerning his discovery that a close friend and fellow activist was actually a spy for a leading British arms dealer. Stand-up is a fine art in and of itself, but this goes a little deeper. There’s something profound and meaningful – as well as very funny – about Thomas’s work of late. In that respect The Red Shed, which has been dubbed ‘the third part in a trilogy’, is no different.
“It seemed to me that we’ve done three shows that were about personal issues but about political issues as well, to a greater or lesser degree. When I did Bravo Figaro, some people were saying, ‘well, that wasn’t a political show’. To be fair, it wasn’t the most political show I’ve done, but it is about a working-class man discovering a love of an upper-class art form. Now, that to me is politics. The notion of self-improvement is a crucial part of working-class culture, because no one’s going to do it for us. So for me, that was a political show.”
In the course of The Red Shed, Thomas tells the story of several of his Wakefield comrades, by incorporating recordings of them speaking and even re-enacting scenes by inviting audience members onto the stage and getting them to wear photographic masks. The Red Shed members in question got to sit in on part of the show’s original rehearsal process, and many came to see the finished show at last year’s Edinburgh Festival.
“It was really amazing to have them there. All the others came to see it at Leeds, so the Red Shed came en masse to see in at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. At the end of it, we got them all up on stage, and then we had this big drink-up in the bar afterwards.”
Thomas seems not to have been fazed by this experience – that is, dramatising the lives of people he knows and having them there to watch the end result.
“Well, that’s the interesting thing. They’re funny old folk. I mean, I adore them and I’ve known for years. It’s just, the show has to be good when you’re performing and they’re there in the audience. There is no doubt about it, this needs to be the best show that I will ever do, because they’re in and I have to make them proud of it.”
Having one’s mates in the audience is one thing, but a persistent charge is that staging such a politically-charged show might amount to preaching to the converted. It’s not an argument that Thomas has much time for, though.
“No, I don’t think that happens at all. First of all, if you’re on the left, you often get asked questions like, ‘don’t you just preach to the converted?’. No-one says to Jim Davidson, ‘well, Jim, which comes first, is it the racism or is it the laugh?’. It’s a question that’s always said to the left. Secondly, the idea that we’re all ‘converted’, that everyone’s sitting there going ‘rah, rah, rah’, is just bloody nonsense, right? And thirdly, the fact is that people say, ‘don’t you want to get working-class audiences into theatres?’. Well, here they are! We get lots and lots of different people coming to the show, a real cross-section. When we were in Wales recently, it was a massively working-class crowd. I’m really proud of that. So, people who say ‘don’t you just preach to the converted?’ – well, what exactly do you mean? Do you mean people who haven’t been to university? Do you mean, are they just liberals? The idea that everyone sits there and they’ve got a tick-sheet of views that say ‘yes, we agree with this’, is just rubbish. I think also, the other thing that people forget is that actually, our job as artists is to make stuff that makes our souls sing. And there’s nowt wrong with that.”
Certainly, audiences so far have been leaving The Red Shed fired up by its powerful, gently hopeful, thoroughly human message. “We’ve had real interesting responses, especially in mining communities. In fact – this was very bizarre – we’ve even had a couple of Tories come up and apologise. It was a hoot.”
By Andy Murray
The Red Shed is touring. For more information, click here.
Northen Soul Awards 2017
The Northern Soul Awards 2017, hosted by Lemn Sissay MBE, will celebrate and reward cultural and artistic excellence in the North of England.