Thursday, February 29

Mark Thomas In England & Son – Traverse Theatre

Raw, brutal, honest, comic. Of the latter Mark Thomas is a master but so equally effective is he at the first three elements that the grim message of violence and trauma begetting more of the same, generation to generation, is diluted not one jot. This is heavy, intense, choreographed by Movement Director Simon Jones, its rhythm well-punctuated by sound designer MJ McCarthy and Lighting Designer Richard Williamson.

Proceedings commence with an introduction from Mark describing how he met writer Ed Edwards several moons ago at the festival. Ed, serendipitously, was behind Mark as they left his show ‘The Political History Of Smack And Crack’, perfectly positioned to overhear the pronouncement; ‘That’s the best thing I’ve seen in fuckin’ ages.’ Five years later, beyond creating some incredible theatre (no doubt with Director Cressida Brown playing a crucial role) the pair have been working with recovering addicts in Manchester’s Ancoats and have begun similar activities in ‘Grennock’ (it’s pronounced GrEE-nock, Mark), west of Glasgow. Encouraging storytelling as a key component in the recovery from addiction, the tales from Mancunians Raymond, Hazel, Danny et al provide ample material (and scope for Mark’s impressions) for what turns out to be a gently humorous account of people previously bereft of a sympathetic ear locating common truths amongst the group. Ed’s adherence to the theory that good stories/films/plays work best with a five-act structure (glossing over acts two and four) brings out realisations from the addicts of what most explicitly sums them up (act one), takes them into addiction and ‘past the point of no return’ (act three) making a happy conclusion (act five) questionable. Sadly, almost every tale involves unstable and/or violent early years, for these people are not essentially stupid, just wronged humans from appalling environments.

The play itself opens with a tragic spectacle, an almost comic event featuring an industrial bin (a theme reprised throughout) behind the Dover branch of Wetherspoons. From there things quickly thicken up and Mark’s performance takes on new dimensions, churning himself (and the audience) into so many shapes of discomfort. Yearning for nothing more complicated than a smile and a hair-tousle from his father ‘England’, ‘Son’ ends up detached from his disintegrating family in a social care environment where replacing the missing aspects of his life entails a life of petty crime with best mate Paul. The two of them (despite Paul’s protestations to the contrary) drag each other into a descent landing them in an unforgiving penal world where ill-treatment from prison staff is routine and expected. With little hope visible on any horizon anaesthetics become the default solution, excepting a brief period with social worker Martha in Dorset. Bruised and buffeted from there to Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and ultimately Dover, judgement smudged by narcotics, violence propelled by alcohol, the very worst happens…

The spectre of England’s violent, imperial kleptocracy hovers over everything, symbolised by the role of Miller’s Antiques Handbook & Price Guide; there’s a cost to someone, somewhere, in the end.

Reviewer: Roger Jacobs

Reviewed: 5th December 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.