Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Showtime from the Frontline

Mark Thomas, Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada
Lakin McCarthy in association with Theatre Royal Stratford East
Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Faisal Abu Alhayjaa, Mark Thomas and Alaa Shehada in Showtime from the Frontline Credit: Steve Ullathorne
Alaa Shehada, Mark Thomas and Faisal Abu Alhayjaa in Showtime from the Frontline Credit: Steve Ullathorne
Mark Thomas in Showtime from the Frontline Credit: Steve Ullathorne

Mark Thomas’s shows tend to be a stirring mix of biting political observation, a wealth of astutely observed characters and flowing, often lightly self-parodying storytelling. Like previous outing The Red Shed, Showtime from the Frontline is based on a journey which Thomas undertook. The former was to the perhaps more familiar setting of a legendary Wakefield Labour Club; here he has travelled to the front line of the Palestine-Israeli conflict, the West Bank in Gaza.

He and his travelling companions wind up in Jenin refugee camp, where the Jenin Freedom Theatre had been set up in 2006 as a way of creating cultural resistance to the violence of the West Bank. There he sets out to lead a series of comedy workshops, with the aim of hosting a stand-up club over a couple of nights in the camp.

From an early stage in the piece, Thomas acknowledges and skewers the potentially patronising “rescue narrative” of the modestly heroic white westerner bringing liberation through culture. We’re presented, for instance, with the image of a charity worker disappointed when they see that the refugees have mobile phones.

And, as ever, he is keen to acknowledge the act of staging these events as a communal one. He opens the show by thanking the usually faceless lighting, sound and production managers behind the scenes—and by welcoming onstage his two Palestinian collaborators in the performance, Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada.

Abu Alhayjaa and Shehada are charismatic, playful and physical performers whose roles in the piece range from impersonations of their classmates in the workshops to their own stand-up routines, presented in the show-within-a-show format which rounds off the evening.

Some of the best sequences derive when all three come together and improvise loosely around a structure—as when they embody the arbiters of taste and morality who attend the show, commenting with snark and outrage at the women on stage and intimidatingly sneering “make me laugh”.

That the pair even made it into the UK to perform is described by Thomas as something of a miracle, given the resistance of the visa system, the incompetence of UK administrators, and the intransigence of certain airlines. These incredible stories—like those of cooking an evening meal in Jenin to the backdrop of gunfire, or of getting a fit of the giggles at a tense airport checkpoint—all go into Thomas’s narrative melting pot.

What results is a subtly shifting stew of storytelling, stand-up and eye-opening information. Time and again Thomas finds ways to acknowledge the contributions of others, challenges his own assumptions and presents us with the dilemmas of the Left: the problematic, potentially tokenistic nature of showing solidarity (for instance with intensive hunger strikes which went on during his visit in protest at Israeli prison conditions); the difficulties of framing a comic performance from a culture and environment so unknown to many in the UK.

All three comedians have energy and magnetism but none more so than Thomas, whose smiling, well-informed and passionate comedy and narration can bite, but only ever punches upwards.

It’s no surprise when Thomas opines that “for me, all jokes are stories”, or when he concludes with a riff on the power of laughter to undermine authoritarian forces no matter where in the world or how heavily armed. The consequences of laughing at the powerful, frantic and weapon-wielding may—as in some cases here—be tragic for the individual. But Thomas and co. provide a compelling argument that it is, nonetheless, vital.

Reviewer: Mark Smith