Mark Thomas – Bravo Figaro – Nuffield Theatre, Southampton – March 24, 2013
Perhaps the most telling line in Mark Thomas’ performance of Bravo Figaro is the one least related to the story he is trying to tell. In fact, it’s only the first half of the line: “When I became the first member of my family to go to university to study drama…”
When Thomas came on stage to introduce the show and to perform his own warm-up, something about the way he composed himself on stage, the way he enunciated, seemed off compared to each of the numerous previous occasions I have seen him live (all told, probably 7 or 8 times before Figaro) and it was only as the show developed that I was able to put my finger on what it was, and was able to contextualise all that went before.
Bravo Figaro is a performance, first and foremost. Where Thomas’ usual stage presence is consistently centred on energy and emotion (most often anger and outrage at the liberties taken by those with power, be they politicians, corporations or anyone/thing else), here his emotions are reigned in, everything is tightly controlled. This leads to a certain dissonance in the warm-up section, which is a combination of stand-up and excerpts from his national tour of the Mark Thomas Manifesto, wherein there are dramatic pauses and the small explosions of anger seemed forced out rather than being natural eruptions.
It became clear why this was after the interval, when Thomas performed Bravo Figaro which is, essentially, the story of how he came to put on an opera in his parents bungalow.
Thomas’ father, Colin, was a self-employed builder in the East End of London, and was very much a self-made man, always looking for self-improvement. As part of this drive, he led himself to classical music and, in particular, opera – the very antithesis of his background and career. He fell in love with the opera, heading to performances in Covent Garden and to the Glyndebourne festival, as well as playing the songs (and singing along) on the building site.
However, in his later years, Colin fell victim to a degenerative brain disorder similar to Parkinson’s and became a shell of the man he once was. When Thomas had the opportunity to work with Mike Figgis and the English National Opera he negotiated a term of contract that was to borrow a number of performers and have them sing for his father in the hope of awakening the dormant man who once was there.
While the piece may be billed as how this performance came about, it is only a small element of the show, which is really an exploration of Thomas’ relationship with his father, both good and bad. The rose-tinted version of his father that is presented initially is torn down with pre-recorded testimony from his brother and it becomes clear that this show is not so much a tribute as a voyage through Thomas’ complicated emotions towards a man he could rightfully claim to both love and hate.
And that’s where the performance comes in. Thomas clearly needs to compose himself in such a way as to distance himself to a degree from the emotions that such a show brings up. I could only speculate as to how seeing his father, once such a strong and independent man, deteriorate is having on Thomas but this show appears to be a part of the coping. If he didn’t exhibit the control that is evident here, I wouldn’t be surprised if the show reduced him to tears, and it is this control that colours what comes in the warm-up section. A trade-off.
However, while I made have made this sound like it is merely an effort at catharsis or therapy, that would be unfair. The portrait that Thomas paints is one of a complicated, conflicted man. Thomas makes the point of saying that what he likes in people are the contradictions, the hypocrisies, and not just because a part of his career can be put down to exposing those present in the ones who rule us. The contradictions and hypocrisies are what make us human, they are what define us in some way.
Bravo Figaro is an absorbing show and it’s a show that makes you think about your own relationships and contradictions. It is also an amusing show, though it would be wrong to call it a comedy. Finally, it is a very good show, but perhaps not in the tradition of what one might expect from a ‘typical’ Mark Thomas show.