Night at the opera

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COMEDIAN and political activist Mark Thomas is back with a show very different from anything he has done in the past. Bravo Figaro! describes how he put on an opera in the bungalow in Bournemouth where his father lay stricken with a degenerative illness.

Thomas counters that if you take the last four shows he has toured, which have involved walking the wall in the West Bank, becoming Guinness World Record holder for political protests, chasing arms dealers around the country and inviting the public to come up with offbeat political manifestos, it would be hard to say what was the norm.

But yes, this was a very personal project.

“It all started when I was on Radio 4’s Saturday Live picking my Inheritance Tracks and talking about my parents,” he explains. “It was the first time in a long while I had talked about that stuff and it crystallised a few thoughts. I chose the Figaro! aria and later someone from the Royal Opera House got in touch.”

He persuaded them to provide him with a group of singers to take to his opera-loving father who suffers from progressive supranuclear palsy and to try to connect with him through music. Recordings from it and Thomas’s reflections on it are the basis of Bravo Figaro!.

“It would never have happened if the right people hadn’t heard the right thing at the right time and then made the phone call,” he continues. “So the show in a way was the product of a group iniitiative.

“Having got to that point and then have Mike Figgis say he wanted it for the Deloitte Ignite festival at the Royal Opera House I realise how lucky I am to have a chain of events that ended up doing a concert for your dad.

“When it was performed at the Royal Opera House we didn’t know what it was going to be like and what the reaction would be like. I made these recordings of conversations with my mum and dad and we edited me out of them and replay them on stage. We didn’t know if that was going to work but the reaction was brilliant.

“It’s funny, the Royal Opera House was about the last place I thought I would find support for my work. If I was to have written a list of places least likely to give me space it would have been pretty near the top, perhaps after Downing Street, But they were brilliant, everyone connected with it.”

Since then it has been performed at the Edinburgh Fringe and enjoyed a three-week run at London’s Tricycle Theatre before going out on a UK tour which comes to the Lyceum Theatre next week as part of the Last Laugh Comedy Festival.

Thomas believes everything he does is personal, “I was talking to Dave Gorman who said people call me a political comic but he sees me as just an enthusiast. and it’s true. I spent a year covering demos, every week joining demos and setting up a company for bespoke demos. We organised a thousand demos on the same day. When you do that there is a kind of obsession and there has to be a personal motive behind it.

“The difference this time is that it is a personal story about my dad and my relationship with him and how imperfect that was.” Thomas senior was a formidable working-class Thatcherite builder and domineering Methodist patriarch. “It’s about the ageing process and finding peace in an imperfect world, “ he adds.

“We have real props on stage – my parents’ actual stuff – so it’s really like a short play. Someone described it as genre-busting. I think its strength is that it’s a story and it’s stand-up.

“It’s more emotional than anything I have done before. The great thing about theatre and performance is that it can change things.

“All of my shows are about me going on a journey where I learn something but this is far more emotional and intimate. In many ways, though, it’s a continuation of what I do. The bit I love is that moment where you have the audience rocking with laughter and within a minute they are silent because they have heard something that shocks them. I think that’s what entertainment is about.”

The tour runs to November and then it will be back to more familiar terriorty. “We have started thinking about the next project and there will be a new series of the Manifesto. It’s been such a laugh and I do feel Radio 4 is such great place to work. I really feel at home there.”