The Red Shed* (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh)

Posted: August 21, 2016 in Theatre

red shedMark Thomas has a talent for constructing and presenting shows that go beyond the stand-up comedy with which he is normally associated and I greatly enjoyed his Cuckooed, a story of intrigue and personal betrayal, seen on this same stage two years ago. His political allegiances were obvious in that show, but they hardly mattered as his themes were universal. However, this time he falls flat on his face with a show that is politics and little else.

The title refers to Wakefield’s Labour club, but the show’s subject is the 1984/85 Miners Strike. Yes, after more than 3o years, he is till going on about it, peddling that stale old distortion of events in which many of the key facts are overlooked, Margaret Thatcher is depicted as an antichrist, the prime villain of the piece is not even mentioned by name and the word “defeat” is never uttered. Come on Mark, it may also be nice to pretend that England did not lose to Iceland in June this year, but is it not healthier to accept the truth and move forward?

The conceit is that Thomas is trying to retrace his steps in a 1985 march by miners back to work. As he shows no other outward signs of dementia, his claim, that the event is engrained deeply in his memory and yet he cannot even remember the name of the town in which it took place, stretches credibility to its limits. Inevitably, Thomas throws in a few neat ad-libs, but, otherwise the show is almost a humour-free zone and he has to rely on the feeble device of getting audience members on stage to hold masks in front of their faces to keep any sort of interest alive. It is all presented with the smug, patronising air of a Londoner newly discovering that intelligent life exists north of Watford.

Notwithstanding all the piffle, there are a couple of times when Thomas gets it right. In a long statistics-based rant, he highlights the ongoing plight of former mining communities. It is indeed a national disgrace that areas blighted by industrial change must wait decades for action to revive them, but Thomas cannot see beyond blaming the demonic Thatcher. As Neil Kinnock has pointed out forcefully, blame in the 1980s for failures to deal with the effects of pit closures lay jointly with the Thatcher government and the afore-unmentioned trade union leader. Failures have continued with subsequent administrations, including 13 years of Labour government. Afflicted areas now need fresh, 21st Century ideas, clear strategic planning and sustained investment. Nobody seems to have a clue where these things may come from, least of all Thomas.

The second time that Thomas hits the nail on the head comes when he talks about voters in the EU referendum declaring a plague on the entire political establishment, but he does so with pride rather than alarm. History has taught us that, whenever the disadvantaged disconnect from those who exist to represent them, they become prey to those who seek to exploit them. As voters turn away from a Labour party that they see as no longer fit for purpose and towards UKIP, Thomas and his like continue to perpetuate myths about the Miners’ Strike and cling to a vision of Socialism that is at least half a century out of date. They are not helping to find solutions for people in real need, they are making themselves part of their problems.

Performance date: 12 August 2016

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