Saturday 7th March 2015
Mark Thomas affectionately describes the Pentland Theatre at the Arts Depot as ‘flat pack’ and that’s a good description. Sandwiched between the bus depot and Aldi’s, it has a surprisingly spacious and calm interior with a no-nonsense feel. The perfect venue to see Thomas’s latest show ‘Cuckooed’ then.
Thomas might have the job title ‘comedian’ on his passport, but he is deadly serious about the subject of his latest show – don’t go if you are looking for two and a half hours of mindless entertainment (or as Mark puts it “If you watch Dave more than 3 times a week don’t come to the show”); but if you want to be challenged, absorbed, shocked and a little bit scared, then this show is for you. Make sure you are on time though, because he sets out his stall early on in the evening by inviting the audience to openly mock any latecomers, and with supremely judged sarcasm, he does an individual summary of the show so far for each new arrival.
The first half serves (if Thomas is to be believed) as the ‘warm up’ act, and is a tightly paced, action packed hour of stand up in which he gives us a hilarious account of his everyday antics as a political activist, including concerted attempts to institute Daily Mail free zones on train carriages (stickers available from the website); the best top tip ever for defacing UKIP posters late at night – wear a high viz vest, nobody will question you; and an extremely short and effective campaign to get Love Film to put subtitles on their DVDs – the unveiling of a massive banner at the Amazon headquarters which read ‘Love Film Hates Deaf People’. As funny as he is sincere, this is a truly joyful account of how rage can be turned to comedy, and how just how powerful (and fun) mockery can be as a political weapon. Mark Thomas is certainly a masterful practitioner.
The second half, a ‘proper drama’ directed by Emma Callender, is a much darker and fiercely personal affair. It is the story of Martin, a former friend and fellow activist, an ex-employee of BAE systems who posed as a ‘gamekeeper turned poacher’ to infiltrate the Campaign Against the Arms Trade for years before being exposed as a corporate spy, employed by an agency to leak information back to BAE. The sheer disbelief of his closest friends and activitists – this was a man who outdid them all in outrageousness – led to discord and distrust within the organisation and to this day Martin’s actions, and his refusal to break his silence about his motives, has clearly been a thorn in Thomas’ side over the years. This is a straightforward and absorbing account, with a bit of help from audio-visuals to allow the key players to participate. Thomas skilfully interweaves a story of deep personal betrayal with the wider picture – the systematic surveillance that goes on unchecked by the law, whether via the domestic extremists register kept by the police which logs in detail the activities of selected ‘extremists’ (and yes, Mark Thomas is on it), or the corporate spying fuelled by paranoia that political dissent might dent the profits of huge corporations.
Thomas invites us in to his world, and the shocking discoveries he has since made, and asks us to reflect on what that means for British society today. It is very hard to protest that ‘the innocent have nothing to fear’ when presented with activists who are under 24/7 surveillance for holding so-called ‘extreme’ left wing views, or the woman who was in a relationship with an undercover policeman for five years before he disappeared from her life with no explanation – only later did she find out that his identity was a complete fiction. Mark Thomas declares himself a highly profficient liar, and we get to see some of those skills at work during the show, with the fantastic pranking of an Indonesian army general under the guise of ‘media training’. He is highly entertaining throughout, but more importantly he never leaves his sense of humour and humanity behind. Even in the midst of betrayal he finds out that Martin seems to be living in squalor and stops briefly to wonder if he was paid enough for his ‘work’. Frightening as this show is, it is also a call to action – after all we still live in a country where it is possible to find out what is happening and to protest. We are not a great fan of awards, but this one got the Amnesty International freedom of expression award 2014 at the Edinburgh Festival, and it is well-deserved, a shining example how you don’t have to stop being a comedian to tackle the most serious issues.