Firebrand comic Mark Thomas turns inward in this moving one-man show about strained family relationships and opera
Early in Bravo Figaro!, Mark Thomas’ affecting one-man show performed at The MAC for the 2013 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, the crusading, politically-charged comic reflects on his emergence in the wild alternative comedy scene of the 1980s.
'We attacked new targets, the bigots and the illiberal, mocking them for their hatred and stupidity,' he fires off, before adding, 'and there was no greater bigot than my father.' It’s a typically arresting line, but this Belfast crowd already know that they’re in for something other than an average Mark Thomas show.
Bravo Figaro! sees the man who made his name as an anarco-comic, and successful investigative journalist, turning his eye away from scrutinising the external, to examining the personal – in particular the relationship with his father, a man Thomas not only calls a bigot but also words too rude to repeat here.
Initially we do get something more akin to the Thomas we expect, as he warms the crowd up with a half hour of stand-up, including introducing the crowd to ‘book heckling’, doing a few greatest hits from his recent People’s Manifesto tour and throwing in something for the home crowd ('if I’m not careful, there’ll be a parade coming through here').
The CQAF crowd suitably warm, Bravo Figaro! itself opens with Thomas ‘speaking’ to recorded interviews of his mum and ailing dad, by then long suffering from the degenerative, incurable disease Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP). The south Londoner flashes back to explain the backstory of his father, Colin Thomas, who remains a ghostly, literal presence throughout as a photo projected onto a backdrop looming over stage and performer.
Colin, the crowd learns from an always engaging Thomas, is a builder and self-made successful businessman; a proud, working class pre-Thatcher Thatcherite; a part-time lay preacher who swore with the improvisational skill of a 'jazz be-bop player' but was also prone to bouts of severe domestic violence against his wife and family. For sure, as Thomas indicates, this is no hagiographic tribute.
However, opera becomes the pivot around which this show spins, as Thomas senior develops a bizarre appreciation of the most elitist art-form going in a working class desire for self-improvement.
Hilariously recalling his father blasting operas out over the rooftops of south London during work – and singing along despite having no clue of the words – Thomas describes how he hated the stuff himself, before discovering a late love of Rossini, Verdi, Mozart et al following his dad’s diagnosis.
This kind of story could easily fall into schlocky melodrama but, naturally, the veteran comic is too astute a performer to let that happen. Thomas mines the darkness for great comedy, keeping the laugh count high while refusing to sugarcoat the two men’s strained relationship. Thankfully, Bravo Figaro! faithfully acknowledges that real families rarely get Hollywood endings.
Indeed, it’s this realism that gives the show’s conclusion such a sad power, as Thomas audaciously plots to set up a Royal Opera House performance in his parent's Bournemouth home as a final tonic for his father.
Uplifting and believable, Thomas intensely guides the audience through a long, final monologue detailing the painstaking planning, execution and aftermath of his bonkers opera project, before leading into a touchingly melancholic coda, which audibly moves the enraptured audience without cynically tugging at heartstrings.
Thoroughly funny, deeply touching and delivered by a natural storyteller, Bravo Figaro! proves that Mark Thomas is a performer with immense heart to go along with the class conscious brains and firebrand brawn.
The 2013 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival continues until May 12.