Mark Thomas’ new show is certainly a departure from his usual lambasting of politicians and furious campaigning. But he is no less aware of his audience. Probably because it’s more or less the same one.
Bravo Figaro! is about Thomas’ father, an ex-builder from East London, and his surprising love for opera. Thomas senior was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy 10 years ago and Mark felt compelled to ‘reach out to him before he vanishes’. This show, a loving tribute and a verbal assault in equal measure, is the story of how he did that.
It is a highly personal subject and an equally passionate performance. Thomas is undeniably watchable and his script is logical but lively, building a vivid picture of his father and other family members, interweaving voice recordings of his parents and younger brother captured last year, the inclusion of which, as well as music clips, is effective and original, and perhaps underused. After a slow start, the last third of the show demonstrates why the careful build-up was necessary, allowing for the poignant conclusion everyone was hoping for.
Because the show is that predictable. Thomas gives his audience exactly what it wants, more or less. Alongside the breezy familial anecdotes, there are jokes about the Liberal Democrats, digs at bankers and self-deprecating quips about the middle-class. The audience is laughing in advance, almost joining in with the punchline. But just as we are beginning to be engulfed by our own smugness, Thomas drags us back out with an obvious lighting change and a dramatic account of his father’s illness. He has the audience in the palm of his hand, and knows exactly how far they want to be pushed; when he calls his father a ‘c*nt’ he assures us this was not just for effect but of course that’s exactly what it was.
And in this sense it is a masterful performance. But the fact that Thomas knows just how comfortable the show is and is happy to admit that his making and selling of it goes against what he was trying to do for his father – i.e. present him with a personal, uncommodifiable gift – makes the whole show, paradoxically, very uncomfortable. It is engaging enough, and probably does what it promises, but Mark Thomas is famous for pushing boundaries. He's capable of more.