Mark Thomas hasn’t been out much recently, he tells us early in the show. Neither have I, if we’re being honest. I’ve not been to ARC for over a year, but here I am, sitting in the stalls. But you can tell he’s been caged up, because he bounds out on stage like Tigger. A very, very, angry sweary Tigger. It’s good to have him back⁰.
This show was first scheduled to happen in April last year, and I suspect the intervening time has changed a fair bit of it. The first half, as he admits himself, isn’t really what he originally had in mind, because he spends quite a lot of time talking about two things: diabetes, and lockdown. He tells us that he was diagnosed with diabetes, and feigns utter disbelief that there are only two other diabetics in the audience this evening, “ What? In Stockton? The home of the PARMO? FUCK OFF!”. He is mollified (a bit) when his fellow sufferers tell him they are type 2 diabetics. “Yes! Type 2 is working class diabetes! Type 2 is the type you have to work for! Type 1 is Tory Diabetes! Pah! Inherited …”. All of this has meant a bit of a change in lifestyle, and he bemoans the impossibility of getting fruit and vegetables in the wild, frontier northern lands he’s standing in tonight. It also means he’s grateful for the care package a friend has brought with them. with those rarest of things: apples, and carrots..
It’s not just the diabetes that has changed things. For quite a lot of lockdown he’s been spending time with his 86 year old mum, in London. At times, he’s says it’s been like an episode of Steptoe & Son¹, though again, probably slightly swearier, even when he’s talking about his sister, who is a priest. And because he’s talking about lockdown, obviously the conversation soon turns to Matt Hancock. He doesn’t like Matt Hancock, but that’s alright, because no one in the audience does either. Like many of us he wonders how this man could have ever even have been allowed out unsupervised, let alone reach high office. But if there’s one thing Mark Thomas does well, it’s righteous boiling anger, so the first shots are fired here. He posits the thought that lockdowns should’ve been named like hurricanes, so the first lockdown last year is swiftly rechristened Lockdown Cummings. The other great thing about a Mark Thomas show is that he frequently wanders off-piste, and drops bits in almost in parenthesis (or is skilled enough to make it look that way). It’s for that reason, after he gives us a quick rendition of the song The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery, we get a brief discursion on Marie Lloyd, and how she gave the establishment the finger in the aftermath of her support for the 1907 Music Hall Strikes. Like most Thomas shows, anyone who gets under the skin of the Establishment is usually a cause for celebration, and that’s always alright by me.
Which brings us neatly to the next point. If his displeasure for Matt Hancock was clear, his ongoing disgust at other members of the political establishment is even plainer. He begins by asking what is the point of Keir Starmer following his conference speech this week, railing at the utter impotence of his position and his approach. But he’s just got going. Take Michael Gove, who with laser-sighted accuracy he nails as constantly having the look of a man who’s just had a wank at work. Mostly though, the anger is (deservedly) directed at Johnson. It doesn’t dissipate over the whole show, and functions as the initial artillery of a more sustained shelling of the edifice of complacent, idiotic, corrupt privilege for which the current tenant in Downing Street is the poster boy. At one point he asks how it is that we’ve put this collection of chancers into Government, but it’s one bit of the show that feels like it doesn’t go anywhere. Mind you, part of that may have been down to the distraction of a not entirely skilled heckler, who he spent a bit of time dismantling.
That more general thread links both halves together really. Lots of the things we tell ourselves as a country are filtered through a prism whose structure is defined by that monoculture. So the second half of the show returns to the original premise, following the template of his book, Fifty Things about Us. There are questions², designed to make us all think about whether we know ourselves as a country as well as we think. Like, for example, how many sovereign nations have the British not invaded? How old is the UK? How full are we? There are no spoilers here, folks. you’ll have to watch him, or read the book, or both, seeing as he’s still on tour (until February 2022 anyway).
He finishes with something that is a mix of anger, and exhortation. Change, he says, is always driven from the bottom. Without that push to unsettle the old order of things, women would never have won the right to vote, for example³. If we think things are bad, or wrong, or unfair, then we are the ones who must fight to change them, because they are not going to do it for us. We are the ones who define what our country is.
⁰ This is the third time I’ve seen him at ARC, and he’s always great. I’ll even forgive him his attempts at the accent, which always come out sounding like he’s from Jarrow. Teesside is hard to get right.
¹ Though probably not the ones involving Hercules, seeings as she lives in a two bedroom flat.
² He did warn us in the first half that there would be questions asked. And singing. He apologised in advance; he told us he’s not a huge fan of audience participation. Its a big piece of the first gag of the night, which involves getting us all to sing along to Bohemian Rhapsody.
³ There was a rather poignant resonance that he mentions this on the day that Sarah Everard’s murderer was rightly told he will spend the rest of his life behind bars.