Mark Thomas: Showtime from the Frontline, Theatre Royal Stratford East

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by guest critic Joanna Trainor

Mark Thomas knows his audience. He starts the show with a dig at Quentin Lett’s racist review before calling audiences at the Royal Court “a bunch of Tory fuckers,” and the room’s already onside. It’s obvious that almost everyone at the Theatre Royal Stratford East has seen Thomas gig before. The whooping coming from the elderly gentleman sat next to me when he came on stage was particularly lovely.

In 2017 Thomas and Sam Beale, who teaches Stand-up at Middlesex University, held a series of comedy workshops at the Jenin Freedom Theatre in Palestine. Showtime from the Frontline is the story of those classes and students, set against the backdrop of hunger strikes that Palestinian prisoners were going on to protest their unlawful incarceration in Israeli jails.

This is a piece of political theatre, but mostly it’s fucking funny. There isn’t that feeling of “let’s all congratulate ourselves about how right on we are”, that can so often accompany performances like these. Nor is there the sense that Thomas is here to tell everyone what a great person he is for bringing stand-up to a refugee camp. It’s about finding new comedic voices in new places, and that there are things everyone finds funny regardless of language or cultural differences.

There’s also a lot of great notes to take down if you’re thinking about how you’d fair as a comedian. Good ways to workshop your ideas, games to play to open people up – seriously, disguise yourself as a critic and bring a notebook. Real comedy classes cost a fortune.

Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada join Thomas onstage, having taken part in the workshops themselves. Their clowning steals the show. The “Bertolt Brecht school of characterisation through hats”, has clearly taught the two very well as they seamlessly move from sassy K-Pop fan Saja to Insta-famous Motaz with a change of headwear. A particularly nice touch is the ending with clips from the comedy club performance in Jenin so you can see how spot-on Abu Alhayjaa and Shehada are.

The last line in the script is from Shehada’s epilogue that doesn’t make it into the actual show, but sums up Showtime from the Frontline perfectly: “For me it is important to show the details of Palestinian life under the Occupation not through the Occupation. Through our common human language, which is laughter.” It’s easy to think you’re not educated enough about the situation in the Middle East to be able to join in conversations like these, but there is very little about Mark Thomas’ show that feels ostracising. It’s about unity in the face adversity, but mostly it’s about having a bloody good laugh.

Mark Thomas: Showtime from the Frontline runs until 21 April.

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