GROUCHY godfather of political comedy Mark Thomas is taking to the stage for the first time in a one-man show written by someone else, playwright Ed Edwards.
Warmed up for last month’s award-laden Edinburgh Fringe run in a work-in-progress performance at Selby Town Hall in July, England & Son returns to North Yorkshire tomorrow (22/9/2023) and on Saturday in the York Theatre Royal Studio.
Set when The Great Devouring comes home, Edwards’s play has emerged from characters Thomas knew in his childhood and from Edwards’s experience in prison in the early 1990s, when jailed for three years for drug offences. [Edwards would write the first of his five novels while inside].
Promising deep, dark laughs and deep, dark love, Thomas undertakes a kaleidoscopic odyssey where disaster capitalism, empire, Thatcherite politics, stolen youth and robbed wealth, domestic violence, addiction, hope and recovery merge into the simple tale of a working-class boy who just wants his dad to smile at him.
Serendipity brought the two polemicists together in 2018. “I came out of a performance of Ed’s play The Political History Of Smack And Crack at Edinburgh and turned to my mate and said, ‘that was amazing’. This voice behind me said, ‘I wrote that’!” recalls Mark.
“So we met up, got on like a house on fire and became mates, coming to gigs, talking till the early hours about politics, and we always said it would be great to work together.”
Two years ago, they made the commitment to crack on with it. “We used to talk about stories, his story, my story, and then we’d work on it. I’d remember half of it, then make up the rest, and then I didn’t see the finished script until the first day of rehearsals, but I knew he’d written a banger, an absolute stormer.”
So much so, England & Son has won a Scotsman Fringe First Award, Entertainment Now Best Theatre Award, Lustrum Award for Unforgettable Festival Shows and Holden Street Theatres’ Award for its run under the direction of Cressida Brown at The Roundabout, a theatre-in-the-round tent.
Now Londoner Mark, 60, is back on familiar territory, on the road, albeit in an unfamiliar setting. “I get to play characters, be the narrator and me, all of that, in a show that’s all about how you tell a story, where you will do the voices, little shrugs and mannerisms, with me charging around the stage and knowing you can’t take your foot off the pedal for a second,” he says.
“The thing about stand-up is you have to be in the moment, but there’s a massively structured script with this show, though we always call it jazz, because if you do the same show twice, you will fail, but that’s good because it makes each show special.
“I’ve got a great opportunity to go and do something I’ve never done before, and because I’d never done it before, I didn’t know what to expect – I’ve been doing stand-up for 37 years – and what’s brilliant is you see the impact and you want that every night.
“If you put yourself on stage telling a story, you can’t coast, you can’t cruise, you have to put in 100 per cent, otherwise cancel the show.”
Mark “wants people to be rent asunder in the desolation of the emotional wreckage” in England & Son. “I’ve always tried to do stuff that does more than make people laugh. Stand-up is in the moment, whereas theatre takes you into an emotional place and I’ve always dabbled in both, but now I’ve taken the reins off and it’s thrilling. I’ve loved it, but I got Covid at the end of the [Edinburgh] Fringe, so I was livid! I couldn’t wait to get back out there.”
Already Mark has “some ideas to get another play out there”, having so enjoyed working with Edwards. “The interesting thing with Ed is that he’s an addict, who got clean before going to jail, and I’ve had issues with alcohol, so we both recognise addiction. There’s something about being in a room with brutally honest people, which has been an influence on this show,” he says.
“Addicts and alcoholics are always telling their stories at meetings and consultations, and what we do in the comedy workshops I run with addicts is to turn it into something beautiful, making it into art.
“Because of my own issues, I’d ask them questions and say, ‘go and write something stupid that you did’, and then I’ll give them my list. It’s a meeting of people as equals.”
More of those workshops are on the way, along with Mark’s England & Son travels, rooted in the political philosophy that any nation that devours another will one day devour itself. “It’s Ed’s title and it’s about England’s relationships, about fathers and sons and families, the damage they can do to each other, but also the hope,” he says.
“As Studs Terkel’s book said, hope dies last, and there’s something with addiction where there can be a thin line between hope and illusion, and that’s why people keep going to those meetings that are profoundly honest.”
England And Son captures a basic human instinct too: “Every single one of us, from the moment we are born, we want the love of our parents,” says Mark. “We want their attention.”
Wanting attention? That applies to writers, performers, comedians too. Give England & Son yours. Five-star reviews demand it.
Mark Thomas in England & Son, York Theatre Royal Studio, September 22, 7.45pm; September 23, 2pm and 7.45pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Ed Edwards: the back story
STARTED his creative career as a circus performer but stopped at the age when you start to think, “This is actually dangerous”. He now juggles a writing career, lecturing, making films and rearing two sons.
Virtually illiterate at the age of 11, Ed eventually managed to educate himself, go to university and become a professional writer. Today he is “only one-third illiterate”, he says.
He did three-and-a-half years in prison in the early 1990s for drugs offences, publishing his first novel while inside. He has five novels and a children’s book to his name and has worked for several continuing television dramas, including Holby City and the now defunct Brookside and The Bill, although he maintains that is not the reason they died.
He has written several original plays for BBC Radio 4 and made short films for Channel 4. He has turned to guerrilla film-making, directing short films and co-directing and producing the feature film Scrambled.
His plays include The Political History Of Smack And Crack and England And Son. He misses the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro and loves making jam and writing about himself in the third person.
Did you know?
MARK Thomas has done shows about visiting the West Bank, starting a comedy club in Jenin, espionage, lobbying Parliament, walking in the footsteps of the highest NHS officials, playing at the Royal Opera House, stopping arms deals and creating manifestos.
Devouring the stage: Mark Thomas in England & Son. Picture: Alex Banner
The artwork for Mark Thomas in England & Son. Picture: Design By Greg
“If you put yourself on stage telling a story, you can’t coast, you can’t cruise, you have to put in 100 per cent, otherwise cancel the show,” says Mark Thomas. Picture: Steve Ullathorne