Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Mark Thomas: The Red Shed

By | Published on Thursday 2 March 2017

Legendary campaigning comedian Mark Thomas heads to Battersea Arts Centre this month for a run of his Fringe First winning play ‘The Red Shed’, the third in a trilogy of more personal, theatrical works.
To find out more about this show, the trilogy, and whether he thinks there’s hope for the future, I put some questions to him, ahead of the London run.

CM: Can you start by telling us what ‘The Red Shed’ is about? What is the story?
MT: ‘The Red Shed’ is all about community and collective memory. It is a wooden socialist shed in Wakefield and it was the place where I came of age politically as a student involved with the miners’ strike. So this story is about the mining communities and the left, Labour and what happened to those communities the Labour leadership decided to ignore AND it is about personal and class history.

I wanted to see if a memory of the strike was true. I remembered seeing children singing ‘Solidarity forever’ at the miners when they walked defeated through the streets back to work. I wanted to try and find the school and the children to see if that emery is true. So I went off with friends to search for the village and the school and the children and the show is me telling the story of that.

CM: It’s the third part of a theatrical trilogy – can you explain how the three shows fit together?
MT: They are all very personal shows, that tell specific stories from my personal life that collide with politics. The shows’ stories are all true to me. In one show, ‘Bravo Figaro’, I told the story of my dad, a working class man who developed a love of opera, and his degenerative illness and how I organised an opera to be performed in his bungalow in Bournemouth. In ‘Cuckooed’, the second part of the trilogy, I tell the story of a close friend in the anti-arms trade campaign who turned out to be a corporate spy. Each show has used recordings with the people in the show, either my dad or my anti arms trade friends and in the case of ‘The Red Shed’ it is with the member of the shed and the people who help me on my quest.

CM: How different are these performances from the sort of stand up shows you first became known for?
MT: I started out as a comic in 1985, became an accidental journalist when I was working on the Channel 4 series 1996-2002, and have been doing my odd mix of theatre, stand up and stuff since. Anyone who has seen my shows ‘Bravo Figaro’ or ‘Cuckooed’ will know that they are a mix of theatre and stand up. ‘The Red Shed’ is a play or a monologue, depending on your point of view. But it is funny and original. Won awards an all that, doncha’ know.

CM: What process do you go through in creating these shows? Have they all entailed a lot of research and development?
MT: Hah! I love that you call it a process. Basically I go and do things that are slightly odd, people react and I come back and tell the story.

This was the ‘process’ for Shed… interview people connected to the shed, friends, comrades and assorted ne’er-do-wells. Hang out some more. Wonder if we ought to work. Panic. Work out the main story. Re do interviews. Organise days out hunting for old miners and schools. Find some. More interviews. More panic. Do show.

CM: You first staged it in 2016 at the Edinburgh Fringe (to much acclaim, obviously) which is quite a few months ago now – have you made any changes to it since then?
MT: The show changes each night because of the people on stage with me and the fact that they always throw new stuff into the mix. A few lines change here and there but essentially the story is the story.

CM: How did you feel when your world record for the most demonstrations in one day was beaten by Freman College Amnesty group?
MT: Delighted. I went to the college and presented them with the award. Really great students. The whole point of getting the world record for demonstrations was to encourage people to beat it, so when the students said they had it was like the punchline to a gag arriving 3 years later.

CM: During the course of your time as an activist, have you ever felt really frightened or in danger?
MT: Sometimes it gets a tad lively (a more eloquent way of saying ‘yes’) but the point is to try and overcome any intimidation rather than be cowed by it.

CM: Given the political and social climate, here and overseas, do you think the end of the world is nigh, or do you have hope for the future?
MT: One of my favourite titles for a book is by Studs Terkel, ‘Hope dies Last’, and I always have hope for the future. It would be dreadful to think we can not change anything because we can and do all the time, you only have to look at the fact a relatively short time ago homosexuality was an offence that would garner a prison sentence.

CM: If you do have hope for the future, what’s coming up in yours? Do you have any new work in progress?
MT: Touring, writing, possibly directing, over throwing capitalism. Lots of plans but can not reveal them yet. But seriously one is so fucking good it is unbelievable.

CM: If you had to write your own (short) epitaph, what would it be?
MT: He came, he had a go, he went.

Mark Thomas performs The Red Shed at Battersea Arts Centre from 6-11 Mar, see this page here for details.

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Photo: Tracey Moberley