The Ipswich performance of Mark Thomas’s monologue play The Red Shed took place the week after the Brexit vote. This made it a bit of a period piece, though Thomas did insert some dog-whistle references to the referendum. The Red Shed is presented as the third act of a trilogy with Bravo Figaro and Cuckooed, but logically comes between them as it traces the roots of Thomas’s political activism to his student years in the North. His textual trademark is a double voicing of direct demotic speech and an erudite gloss of what the speaker is actually thinking. Basil Bernstein would love it. His stagecraft trademarks include calling attention to themes to follow, like a magician, as well as light use of props and heavy use of eye contact. In the 88-seat Avenue Theatre, he managed to address several lines to each audience member in rotation, and also employed half a dozen of them to occupy places as club members for him to address and ventriloquize. It was a simple, low-stress involvement device and the whole audience respectfully joined him in singing a socialist song at the climax.
The Red Shed in question is a socialist club in Wakefield which Thomas said “is like a Tardis for me except it only travels backward in time.” During the period that he was hanging around the Red Shed, Thomas attended a miners’ strike protest march and the spine of the play is his return to the region to investigate the verifiable facts of the day that gave rise to his memory. As usual, there is some divergence between the narrative polished by retelling and the unvarnished facts, and he alerts his audience to this, even asking them if they would prefer the truth or the good story. At the same time as Mark Thomas the actor wants the satisfying story, Mark Thomas the political animal finds facts more productive, saying that “If we want our stories to be better than the other side’s, they should be true.” I believe at this performance we voted for the story, but we won’t know if our vote changed what we saw until he publishes the script.
Thomas is an industrial nostalgic; in a previous play, he declared, “We used to have industry, we made stuff, it was fucking great.” He presents an attractive version under the topical circumstances: a bit about immigrants and workers uniting to oppose racism, a statement that “we used to own the railways. We used to not have to take the country back because we owned it.” A good line to hold against privatization of the NHS and – actually, it’s difficult to think of what else hasn’t been privatized already. But from another angle, the average worker in the engine age controlled very little, except in his own house, where, at least in stereotype, he overcompensated with autocracy. It is not only the Leave side that romanticizes the past.
Two pieces at this year’s Pulse Festival, held in May, showed common style with Thomas or even influence from him: Byron Vincent’s Live Before You Die was about young men finding a language, again double-voiced between laddishness and theory, to talk about their feelings. Andy Smith’s The Preston Bill was a narrated life story of a Northern working-class man, aggregated from many. He used a chair as prop, interlocutor, and even stand-in for Bill the narrator; and like Thomas, he made frequent use of cataphoria (“and what happens is this,” “and he says something like this”). Smith played the ukulele for his audience-participation solidarity song, which I think we had to sing several times. He was a skillful performer but the piece was somehow generic, perhaps better suited to schools or museums. It’s hard to be interested in an abstracted person from the past when there are individuals from the past, like Thomas, putting on shows.
Disclaimer: All line quotations are from memory and memory, as we know, plays tricks.
Addendum: The Red Shed apparently killed it at the Edinburgh Festival and will tour in the autumn. It may be a different show from the one I saw.