Mark Thomas has always been sceptical of comedy workshops. But by sharing the spotlight here, he gives a voice to performers who might otherwise be voiceless. In his 33 years as a comic, Thomas’ stand-up has increasingly shifted from the conventional one-man-and-a-mic approach to a more inclusive, communal form of folk theatre. And so it is that his latest show, about establishing a comedy club in the West Bank city of Jenin’s refugee camp, finds him onstage with Palestinian performers Alaa Shehada and Faisal Abualheja, as they recount and clownishly act out their tales and those of their coursemates who cannot leave the occupied territory.
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****
The very existence of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, where Thomas and his friend, comedy tutor Dr Sam Beale, run their class, and the 2011 assassination of its founder Juliano Mer Khamis by a killer unknown, affords some insight into tensions within the camp. The onerous atmosphere of judgement inhibits some of the students, who refrain from delivering some of their more potent material for fear of causing offence. Nevertheless, theirs’ is necessarily a radical discourse and Shehada and Abualheja play with patronising Western perceptions of refugees by admitting to owning iPhones.
If the first half of the play is scene-setting and the second opens with the trio inhabiting the fogeyishly disapproving views of the Palestinian National Authority, when Shehada and Abualheja are left to simply perform their stand-up, it’s exhilarating - the haranguing of the former’s overbearing mother and the erotic potential of enforced curfew vitalised by the audience’s knowledge of the political stakes. Defiant and winningly mischievous, Showtime from the Frontline laughs hard at authoritarianism.