Live Review: Mark Thomas – The Red Shed, BAC, SW11

Mark Thomas is not just one of the best comedians of his generation, he is also one of the most prolific. While others might be content to churn out gags about their prostate tests he constantly comes up with not just new shows but whole new ideas.

The Red Shed is apparently the third part of a trilogy, following Bravo Figaro! and Cuckooed. And while each piece clearly has both an autobiographical and political edge to them they are also very distinct. In The Red Shed Thomas revisits the 1980s when Britain was a divided nation under Margaret Thatcher and he was just starting out a stand-up comedian, doing his first gig at the White Lion in Putney in 1985 and later falling in love with the unashamedly left wing Red Shed venue in Wakefield.

The kicking off point is Thomas being interviewed by the NME in 1989 and recalling an incident when schoolkids took part in a miners' march. Three decades on he wonders if his mind is paying tricks on him – which, in an era of Fake News this feels very relevant – so he heads back to the north of England try to track down the school in question.

This would be enough of a story for lesser comics but not for Thomas, who weaves in a number of different strands, about the nature of protest, the changing landscape of Britain and the value of solidarity, for example. His passion and sincerity could be cloying and sickly if it was not for the fact that a) he clearly means every word and b) he is also very funny, even getting a gag out of the serious subject of inclusivity when he briefs a few latecomers to bring them up to speed.

Thomas studied drama and it shows as he uses a number of theatrical devices in the peformance. Strictly speaking this is way more theatre than stand-up. The door of the Red Shed has been rebuilt for the stage so he makes sure he regularly walks through it, and the chairs on the stage are genuine Red Shed chairs, covered in genuine socialist sweat. Seated in the chairs are volunteers from the audience who play various characters by holding up masks - Thomas is probably taking his cue from Greek theatre here, but for me I always enjoy this because it reminds me of Vic and Bob doing Action, Image, Exchange.

To say too much about the quest of our hero would spoil watching him go on his journey, but it is both touching and entertaining. Thomas is a masterful, infectious activist who has you hanging on his every quip. It might help if you can remember the 1980s, and the tune to the Red Flag, which you are invited to sing at one point, but The Red Shed isn't just for people who were there. It is a pithy, potent and important history lesson for those who are too young to have been there. 

At Battersea Arts Centre until March 11 then touring. Details here.

Picture by Tracey Moberley. 

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