Socialism, Jokes and The Red Shed: Interview with Mark Thomas

In anticipation of his upcoming show at Uni Park’s own Lakeside Arts Centre, Impact Arts spoke to Mark Thomas about Edinburgh Fringe success, aversion to one-liners and having utmost respect for miners. 

So Mark, what or where exactly is this “red shed”, and why is it so important to you as a comedian? Can you tell us a little about your hit show The Red Shed and what makes it so unique? 

The Red Shed is ostensibly a Labour Club and is literally a wooden single storey 47ft long socialist shed. It is in Wakefield and it is where I went as a young student activist. It became an incredibly important part of me, a place where politically I came of age during the miners’ strike and where I first performed in public. It is a place I have always gone back to and still have friends and comrades there. It is in many ways a talisman for me.

As for being a comedian, I have not performed stand up for years. What I do is make rather odd little shows which are a mix of theatre, stand up, journalism and activism. Some have described it as theatre, some a play, some a story-telling show,  some a monologue or spoken word. So if anyone wants to come along expecting to see an hour of one liners my advice is ‘go somewhere else’. And if you ever find yourself watching Dave on a regular basis, don’t come to my gig. In fact, don’t go out, just stay at home, you’ll only spoil it for everyone else.

How do you create your shows?

I am glad you asked. For The Red Shed, I interviewed friends and comrades, but also set myself a series of quests and tasks, one of which was to see if a memory of the mets 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 memory 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.

The Red Shed is the last part of a trilogy of your shows. How does this production differ? 

The shows are stories which are true to me, so 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 members of the shed and the people who help me on my quest.

Those bits are the same but this show has been written so it cannot work unless the audience help with singing, noises, physically coming on stage to play the parts of the people in the show. That bit is quite different.

How was your recent experience at the Edinburgh Fringe, where you received four and five star reviews? Being described as “one of Britain’s greatest storytellers” is no mean feat – congratulations! 

I love going to the Fringe. I always want to see as many shows as possible – everything from radical German productions of Richard III, to my mate Bridget Christie. It is always a great time up there, though the highlight this year was seeing Godspeed You! Black Emperor performing live for a Canadian contemporary dance company. Close second was Billy Bragg. So the fringe is somewhere I look forward to going to each year, but winning a couple of awards never goes amiss.

What has been your greatest challenge so far in creating and performing this production? 

Time and money.

Why should a Nottinghamshire audience come and watch your show?

Because it is really good. I think you may be alluding to the fact that as this is a story about the miners’ strike and the majority of Notts miners famously refused to come out on strike believing their pits safe. The show is about how Britain ended up where we are. I think everyone has an interest in that.

Also, as a side note, the striking Notts miners were incredibly brave and principled and have my total admiration.

Sum up The Red Shed in three words.

So fucking brilliant!

Questions by Amy Wilcockson

Image courtesy of Mark Thomas and Unavoidable PR

‘Mark Thomas: The Red Shed’ is running at the Lakeside Arts Centre, University Park, Nottingham on Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th of September. For more information and to book tickets, see here.

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