Theatre review: Mark Thomas: The Red Shed

When Mark Thomas first went to the Red Shed in Wakefield '“ a working people's club famous for its good talk and excellent entertainment '“ he was a young South London comedian in his 20s, radicalised by the miners' strike that swept through the Yorkshire coalfields in 1984-85, when he was a drama student at Bretton Hall.

Mark Thomas in The Red Shed
Mark Thomas in The Red Shed

Star rating: *****

Venue: Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)

Today, he’s a man in his 50s, and one of Britain’s greatest storytellers, his art maturing gradually through stand-up comedy to shows like Cuckooed and the irresistible Bravo Figaro!

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    So when Thomas decided, for his latest show, to return to the Red Shed, in search of the truth about a story he thought he remembered from the last day of the strike in 1985, it was always likely that he would produce a mighty monologue, rich in the history not only of his own political formation, but also of Britain itself, over the last generation; and so it proves.

    It’s not that Thomas makes no use of various theatrical devices, in delivering his tale; he has a director (the excellent Joe Douglas of Dundee Rep), an element of sound design by Michael McCarthy, and a set by Kate Bonney that features two tables with chairs actually borrowed from the Red Shed, on which Thomas seats a few willing audience members, to represent the Shed community.

    For the most part, though, it’s just Mark Thomas, the audience, and the art that conceals art, as he tells his beautifully-paced and structured story of a quest to find a valued part of his own past that he is afraid he may just have invented, or mythologised. His point is that narrative is power; and that if there is to be any chance of fighting back against the dominant right-wing narratives of our time, then the stories told in the cause of a more humane and sustainable future had better be true. In what’s often called a “post-truth” culture, it’s an unfashionable view; but it gives Mark Thomas’s show a weight, a structural strength, and a passionate humanity that surpasses most other work on the Fringe by a long Yorkshire mile, and has many members of the audience wiping away tears, as the story finally reaches journey’s end.

    Until 28 August.Today, 1:15pm.