Showtime from the Frontline

at Traverse Theatre

* * * * -

Comedy with teeth, balls and heart from Mark Thomas

Image of Showtime from the Frontline

Comedy is just story-telling, Mark Thomas tells us. A joke is no more than a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. For all that, Showtime From The Frontline is a pretty impressive story that will have you laughing out loud and leave you with buckets of food for thought.

The story begins with a book, a bookseller and a UN ambassador on a car on the road to Damascus. (All jokes need three people.) Thomas’ Damascene moment came when he suggested that he might teach comedy to Palestinians. Years of negotiating later, after a colourful trip through customs, he finds himself at Jenin Freedom Theatre, located just inside a refugee camp in the north of the West Bank, teaching a generation who had grown up inside the camp how to use their experiences to make people laugh.

It’s an incredible tale, a heartbreakingly funny tale and an incredible tale to make funny. Following three years of visa negotiations and five police stations, Thomas is joined on stage by two of his comic protegés, Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada with whom he’s co-written the show. The evening culminates brilliantly with filmed footage of the performers who weren’t able to travel and Abu Alhayjaa and Shehada’s live stand up routines from the show performed at the end of the workshop.

Shehada is funny, frenetic, self-effacing and a brilliant physical performer. His impersonations of the other workshop attendees are astutely observed, endearing and very funny. His stand-up routine introduces us to his mother’s long-suffering quest for a wife for her son, his compassion and delivery stopping it ever straying into caricature. Abu Alhayjaa has an easy grace, entirely at home alongside the seasoned Mark Thomas. He has a gift for delivering devastating observations about his life in the refugee camp, co-existing uneasily alongside the Israeli occupiers, with such a languid humour that you find yourself almost wishing you’d been there.

Thomas himself knows his stuff. He’s a wonderfully relaxed performer, strolling through the story with a self-deprecating quick-witted charm. Louis Theroux-style, he does a lovely job of playing foolish foreigner abroad while his ambition, vision and determination must have been razor sharp to pull this off.

This is Thomas’ seventh show at the Traverse, he tells us. And there are clearly a great deal of fans in tonight’s sold out audience. He’s barely opened his mouth and people are laughing. Comedy possibly isn’t the first thing you associate with the Traverse but Thomas’ thinking man (and woman’s) comedy feels perfectly housed there. It is comedy but with a political punch that has it veering dangerously into theatre territory and this audience lapped it up.

Kudos to director Joe Douglas for consistently seeking out such interesting material. He does a lovely job of helping the story along. Abu Alhayjaa’s face becomes a map of Palestine to set the scene. Judicious use of costume and excellent characterisation keeps the audience captivated for an hour and fifty minutes (excluding interval).  And the screen that forms the centrepiece of a simple set doubles as a wonderfully stern no smoking / no guns warning and a window into Palestine.

It would be easy to turn this show into an exercise in narcissistic navel-gazing – a comedian making a show about how he trained other people to write and perform comedy? But a cheeky reference to Brecht is about as metaphysical as it gets. It would have been easy to make an outraged rant about the injustice inherent in a state recognised by all other countries in the UN – except Israel. A state in which the Palestinian National Authority often overlooks its people’s best interests. A state in which questions were asked when Thomas put women on stage. All tribute to the team that it avoids all of the above. Instead, it’s a gloriously thought-provoking reflection on the power of theatre to open minds, win hearts and hopefully, shove us a little bit closer to righting wrongs.

It’s on until Saturday at the Traverse and then touring. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be seeking out falafel when you’re done.