Posted by: Richard Frost | 5 Apr 2020

Mark Thomas comedy gig review

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: November 2004
Outlet: Durham21

Richard Frost is caught in the crossfire as Mark Thomas battles between two shows – but can Mark live with Thomas?

Mark Thomas is something of a puzzle in the stand-up world. Here’s a comedian with a six-series back-catalogue at Channel 4, but who seems increasingly to downplay the role he’s created of a stand-up with a political edge.

Rapidly disappearing is the politicised Dom Joly who turned up to a cabinet minister’s house at 7am in a tank, asking for the best way to export military arms to Iraq. Instead, the Mark Thomas that emerged at Gala Theatre is a slightly uneasy comedy animal, torn between delivering crowd-pleasing politically tinged humour and meticulously researched political activism offset by the odd joke.

David ‘Sex Bomb’ Blunkett
This is not to dismiss the ability of Mark Thomas as an entertainer, however, as the man continues to engage throughout a surprisingly long 2-hour set. It’s a remarkable achievement to build an immediate audience rapport and bring them to hysterics for a full hour in the 1st half, whilst also being intermittently hilarious in the 2nd.

Here is a man with a gift for satire, as he begins by taking the audience through bizarre but entertaining visions of David Blunkett as a Big Brother figure, whose totalitarian visions are restrained only by his insatiable sexual appetite. As he dwells on the cruder elements of Blunkett’s sex life in his swear-filled rants, it’s our first reminder that Thomas is unafraid to court controversy.

Promotional material for a tour by stand-up comic Mark Thomas

In truth, Thomas’ conversational style is part of his carefully constructed persona as a true man-of-the-people, delivering jokey asides aplenty to create a real sense of intimacy with the audience. This is brilliantly exploited for political effect when he wittily summarises Israel’s willingness to withdraw from the Gaza Strip whilst retaining the West Bank: “It’s the equivalent of somebody bombing the whole of the North-East, launching a hostile invasion and then describing themselves as men of peace because they’ll let us keep Peterlee.”

As well as political messages, he also delivers some killer one-liners as he plays up to the largely student audience by asking the price of the show, and then responding “£12.50 – that’s about £200 in student loans!”

However, his semblance of being up to date – crucial to all cutting-edge political satirists – was sometimes found lacking, such as in his disappointing failure to acknowledge the US elections. For a comedian who has emphasised his anti-Americanisation attitude throughout the show and who will undoubtedly target George Bush for future satires, this was a hugely surprising omission.

Pub Talk
Nevertheless, what he does talk about is generally both absorbing and entertaining. Particularly evident is his love of absurdity as he gleefully recounts the spontaneous sing-song whilst chained to a coachload of arms dealers, and the armada of paddle boats used to block their arms ship from docking. And perhaps the performance’s most memorable moments come through his characterisations here, as he imitates all-action fiery Scottish activists and hopelessly bewildered policemen.

This kind of Peter Kay-style observational comedy built on character sketches is terrifically funny and would be perfect material for an unambitiously funny stand-up routine. And yet this bloke-down-the-pub persona jars noticeably with his political activist assault on Coca-Cola in the 2nd act, in which Thomas moves from purely comic aims to what is effectively a political rant, explaining to us with the assistance of an avalanche of facts and personal experiences why the soft drinks king is evil.

Admittedly, many of these facts were fascinating – did you know, for example, that Fanta was created for the Nazis because cola syrup was impossible to get in WWII Germany?!! However, it becomes increasingly apparent as the rant builds that this maturely developed political activism is Thomas’ new love, leaving me feeling that the comedy of the 1st half is merely there to bring in the punters.

Someone Old, Someone New…
Quite simply, this painstakingly researched, brilliantly convincing political activism doesn’t tally with the easy-going experience-seeker and joker of the 1st act – leaving audiences divided between the Old and New Mark Thomas. Both are brilliant in their own way and each could easily carry a show on their own, whether it be funny and biting political satire or persuasive political activism.

His attempts to merge the two just aren’t as convincing though, which suggests to me that Mark Thomas has now hit a crossroads. If he’s to avoid alienating his huge fanbase in both camps, tonight’s star will soon need to decide between a career as a light-hearted political stand-up and a serious political activist.


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