Live Review: Mark Thomas – Showtime From The Frontline, Theatre Royal Stratford East, E15

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Evening Standard here.

Say what you like about his politics, you can’t fault the work ethic of Mark Thomas. Last autumn he fronted a show about predicting the future, he is already working on a piece about the NHS at 70 entitled Check-Up and here he tells the uplifting story of how he set up a comedy night in a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin. Thomas is definitely no slouch. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the James Brown of political comedy.

This piece, however, is not quite stand-up, it is a more theatrical (it must be theatrical, you can buy the script) collaborative work, directed deftly by Joe Douglas, complete with supporting cast. Thomas is joined by two extremely likeable performers who did the Jenin gig, lanky Faisal Abu Alhayjaa (whose face in profile, we discover early on, is the same shape as a map of the West Bank) and Alaa Shehada, nicknamed “Omelette Boy”. The trio deliver a tale of triumph and underline the undeniable potency of comedy andf humour in the darkest of situations.

Thomas is all eye-popping passion and self-deprecation as he takes us through the process of putting on the show right there. We see the results both onscreen in clips of other enthusiastic performers and onstage. The wit is both universal and also utterly specific. Gags about Tinder and Trump jostle with jokes about pipe bombs and arrests. Abu Alhayjaa’s stand-out routine is about how whenever there is a curfew there is a population boom nine months later.

The idea of a play about training stand-ups is not new. Trevor Griffiths wrote The Comedians way back in 1975. But while that and this both explore the complex nature of humour, Showtime from the Frontline is starkly different. Griffiths’ aspiring entertainers certainly never had to negotiate checkpoints manned by teenage soldiers, “like a paramilitary version of The Inbetweeners”.

Until April 21. Buy tickets here.

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