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Mark Thomas

Note: This review is from 2004

Review by Steve Bennett

There's never been a better time to do what Mark Thomas does. Anti-globalisation sentiments run high, the anti-war movement is at its peak and fear and mistrust of America's leaders and corporations has never been stronger.

Thomas is Britain's answer to Michael Moore, predating him even, with his televised stunts designed to make life uncomfortable for the big and the powerful. Or, more precisely, their receptionists.

Now he's off Channel 4 ­ after, he claims, blanching at their idea of Celebrity Guantanamo Bay ­ and back on stage with his potent mix of politics, polemic and jokes.

And what a cracking start his new show gets off to. Cracks about Bush, Blair and the Hutton Report coming quick and hard, jollied along by Thomas's cheery demeanour. He's not the only comic on the Fringe covering such material of course ­ these aren't the sort of issues any serious stand-up could afford to miss ­ but it's fast-paced, funny, and bang on the money.

In contrast to many political comics, though, Thomas practises what he preaches, and he's soon into his favourite stories: raising a 'confetti army' of anti-war protesters, conducting some fun and games at the perimeter of a military base and, separately, his arrest trying to subvert an arms fair.

Surprisingly, this was the first time Thomas's playful direct action has landed him in anything like serious trouble. Handcuffing himself to a minibus full of BAe delegates en route to an arms fair in London's Docklands, Thomas and his fellow agitators are arrested and accused of damaging the vehicle.

To his colleagues, it's all a joke ­ "If you phone an arms fair and say there's a bomb in the building ­ is it technically a hoax?" one of them asks the weary coppers ­ but to Thomas it's a genuinely worrying ordeal.

The comedy here is an adjunct to the politics. It's a comic telling personal tales of the scrapes he got into with wit and style. The points he's trying to make are only incidental.

That's more than can be said for the second half of the show which, having lulled us into his confidence with some first-class stand-up, Thomas lets out his agenda. And when the soapbox comes out, the jokes vanish.

Not that his message is unsympathetic. Calling for a boycott of the Coca-Cola Corporation he tells of human rights outrages committed at their plants around the world. The company naturally denies involvement, but they have benefited from the collapse of the trade union movement amid violence, intimidation and even murder.

He gives us the complex background in a series of conversations, either real or imagined, he had with those in the frontline as he travelled the globe investigating the stories. It's compelling stuff, and you'll vow never to touch a can of the black stuff again, but comedy it ain't. Let's face it, there's not that many laughs in tales of multinationals, assassinations and Third World families kept in abject poverty by their all-powerful big-business employees.

When it comes to passion, Thomas is the real thing, but he lets his message overwhelm the comedy ­ which, after all, is what he's selling tickets for. You can understand why he wants to say what he says, but there's a nagging feeling the impressive first half is little more than the bait with which he captures his audience for the preachy second.

Fair play to him for spreading the word any way he can ­ he'll touch more people though comedy than with an upturned milk crate at Speakers' Corner ­ but audiences should perhaps be aware this is only 50% comedy.

Review date: 1 Jan 2004
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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