I’ll confess, I’m already predisposed to liking Mark Thomas having seen some of his TV spots in the past and having read his wonderfully funny and illuminating account of the arms trade As used on the famous Nelson Mandela.
I’d also enjoyed seeing him perform at a previous fringe show some years back and as I approached The Bongo Club once again I tried to recall it whilst cycling like a maniac to get there on time. I hoped I’d have just enough time to grab a refreshing soft drink to take in with me.
I arrive and being familiar with the venue I bound up the stairs on autopilot and run straight into the man himself. He’s the only person there apart from the barman but the bar appears closed. It’s just the three of us and for the first millisecond of mental computing I’m taken aback thinking ‘where is everyone?’ Mark Thomas looks at me expectantly, probably assuming I’m a member of staff come to tell him something.
He looks at me with inquisitive but friendly eyes and a silent air of ‘yes what it is - this better be quick - I’m onstage in one minute’. My mouth opens and is about to say to the barman ‘could I just have a glass of co..’. In the next millisecond my brain recollects the entire contents of his previous fringe show. A metaphorical foot rises up through the air and stuffs itself into my mouth as my brain screams ‘ABORT ABORT’.
I mumble something disinteresting about remembering there’s a bar downstairs and embarrassed I flee. When I get there I’m delighted to see the venue’s packed. A member of staff asks me what I’d like to drink and I confidently say in a loud deep and manly voice ‘a pint of lager please’.
The previous show I’d seen was about the Coca Cola empire and its sinister and exploitative practices. With very minor exceptions, I’ve conscientiously avoided buying or drinking the stuff ever since. But I needn’t have worried, I’m sure the Bongo Club, known for its championing of ethical causes over the years sells a cola mixture on tap rather than the ‘real thing’.
But tonight isn’t about soft drinks. He’s had new adventures since our last encounter, shining his razor sharp spotlight of liberal politics and comic wit onto new territory, this time his inspection of the vast wall Israel’s been building around the West Bank.
The lights dim and he bounds onstage framed by a large map of the area behind him. He launches straight into the material with such rapid fire vigour that I have to sit up in my chair and shake the normally pleasant cobwebs of bland gormlessness from my mind as I realise ‘shit, I’m really going to have to concentrate to keep up with him’.
He recounts and re-enacts the pitfalls, perils and joys of walking the entire length of the Israeli built wall and the people he met on both sides along the way. During the journey he gets stoned by Palestinian kids, arrested by Israeli soldiers (I’d expect nothing less from him), accommodated by a racist home owner, encounters an unusual giraffe and just for good measure gets himself tear gassed.
Amidst all the absurdity, the whole thing is underpinned by fresh insights into how the region is struggling for reconciliation and a progressive way of moving forward.
It’s an absolutely blistering performance and I’m not only engaged by the material but struck by how much in the intervening years he’s honed his onstage skills. It’s no longer just an informal amiably rambling series of witty anecdotes from a gifted raconteur, no longer just a series of informed observations and conscience challenging data. This is the performance of a slick actor, comic and storyteller whose juxtaposition of the hysterically absurd with moments of moving pathos had me doubled up with laughter one moment and stunned into silence the next.
Those of you afraid of a flag waving and pompous lecture on the suffering of the Palestinian people fear not. This is a finely balanced show with a fresh take on both sides of the equation delivered by a mesmerising messenger. As I write this I’m still taking it in, having flashbacks that make me giggle and thinking I might return for a second helping.
Show times: 7.30pm , 8 August - 15th and 17th - 20th.
Tickets £10.00 / £14.50
0131 557 2827 (festival box office only). Venue 0131 558 7604