The audience filed into The Courtyard Theatre, Mark Thomas walked on stage, yet the houselights never dimmed. It was clear that the audience were as much a part of this piece as anyone. Despite the sell-out crowd, in a relatively capacious space, The Red Shed is an intrinsically intimate Fringe theatre piece. This is a distinctly personal, raw and emotional story, which simultaneously touches political and historical chords within us all.
The Red Shed is primarily about story telling. Beginning by taking us back to a single, poignant moment during the Miners’ Strike, we are then welcomed into the classic trope of a “road movie”: Mark’s quest to recover the truth of the past. Yet, confined within a facsimile shed, the “road” and its obligatory “kooky characters” were down to Mark alone to present. In a story, about a story, about story telling, Mark Thomas revealed himself as a bard.
Denoted minimally by some chairs and, at centre-stage, a pair of red doors, the shed-on-stage was populated by six audience volunteers. A frivolous sense of slapstick simplicity was injected through their involvement: namely, holding up masks on sticks upon request. This was just one layer of Mark’s multitudinous comedy stylings. Short of infrequent voice recordings, to back up his stories, this was entirely a one-man show. Thus, the rules of engagement dictate that the one man must provide a varied performance; Mark Thomas achieved this constantly, and with aplomb. From the self-parody of a camp drama student, through a myriad of distinctly Yorkshire impressions, the audience were kept laughing. Observational comedy, political satire and topical ad-libs catered for everyone.
But that certainly isn’t to say that this was a shallow laugh-a-minute. Far from it. Often the political notions were reeled off (impressively quickly considering the eloquence of the writing) in order to maintain the fast pace and high energy. Decidedly un-preaching, whenever a moment became too intense, or too politically motivated, Mark snapped out of it: physically and verbally moving into a different story, on a totally different plane. But, at other moments, he slowed, took centre-stage and embodied the necessary gravity. It was clear that, for some audience members, the events of 1984-85 were all too fresh. But for those of us not born until Thatcher’s aftermath, the parallels drawn with our current ‘Brexit’ world were equally telling. Former passions were brought to life, as audience and performer were brought together.
Until now, I have always assumed that “audience participation” aligns with “internal groans” and “deep-set dread”. But I have never seen such a willing audience. The soundscapes we were tasked with created an entirely believable atmosphere amongst comrades. This was solidified in closing: Mark sung a low and rousing chorus of Solidarity Forever and, entirely unprompted, the audience joined him. Mark himself welled up and I got goosebumps. I’ve never been to the Wakefield Labour Club, but, for just 75 minutes this evening, I felt a part of something real. For a piece of theatre to create that is, in Mark’s own words, “mag-f*ckin-nificent!”