Mark Thomas enters the Factory Theatre in unassuming manner. Strolling on with a cup of tea in his hand and the house lights fully on, he thanks the audience genuinely for their lack of applause. A man clearly comfortable in telling stories, he doesn’t need the affirming backslap that a yet-unearned clap provides. And the affable, laid-back way he approaches this performance of England & Son is integral to it, as he is here to dwell on the stories of those often ignored, the addicts and the left-behinds, those that have suffered at the hands of successive abusive government ‘interventions’.
Thomas, having been engaged with a group of addicts in Manchester alongside writer Ed Edwards, spends the first thirty minutes or so relaying their anecdotes as if plotting a script for a film of their lives. Camp David lights up a spliff on the top deck of a bus, good-time girl Hayley wonders if she has slept with her own father while off her tits, and accountant Niall conjures up lies to get away with heroin-induced absences from work. The stories are wonderfully earthy, and Thomas, imitating his protagonists with great affection, manages to convey them with a touch of both despair and hope.
The second half of the show develops into the more scripted England & Son, written by Edwards and the first show Thomas has been in which he hasn’t typed up himself. It is a searing tale of the violence of colonial occupation in countries like Malaya, the “legalised theft” of their natural resources, and the shrapnel of trauma left behind in the military men that served there. The story is threaded together by the non-chronological narrative of a bright young boy abused by his father and a series of failing social policies, a young scamp who becomes a juvenile offender and falls down life’s ladder.
Thomas brings huge emotion to the role, clearly impassioned by his work with addicts and those in recovery, and enthused by his friendship with ex-prisoner Edwards. He also can’t escape the lure of potential laughs that a veteran comedian spots – he breaks character to joke about the Tobacco Factory’s sinister past and warmly mocks the exit of a toilet-seeking punter. Far from detracting from the show, it shows the humanity that Thomas so clearly possesses.