‘I’m a show off’, Mark Thomas tells us, as he launches into the story of his first arrest after he’d locked himself to the axle of a minibus carrying arms dealers to a London conference. For the past 10 years, Thomas, a comedian and investigative reporter, has been an active anti-arms-trade campaigner and it is this part of his life that is the subject of his new one-man show at the Traverse, Cuckooed.
The show is part activism porn for the greying, fair-weather radical Radio 4 crowd, and part an exploration of spying, deceit and betrayal – resting on the discovery that one of Thomas’s long-term comrades and closest friends, a man he calls Martin, was revealed as a mole for British arms-manufacturer BAE Systems.
He reads letters, screens interviews with his fellow activists – a mix of ‘crusties, quakers and Guardian-reading peaceniks’ – and launches into dialled-up anecdotes about his exploits with Martin before ruefully reflecting on the betrayal. This is more personal than political. Thomas races through the wrongs of the arms industry, working under the assumption that every right-thinking audience member will already agree with him – leaving the gaping question of whether pacifist resistance to the big, bad bomb makers is only ever an exercise in calling on the authorities to wash their hands of foreign conflicts rather than campaigning in solidarity with those affected.
However, by the show’s end, he awkwardly guides his story back to a reflection on corporate and police spying. But this begs an important question: if you’re a real radical, isn’t being spied on sort of part of the package? True revolutionaries have always relied on secrecy, cadre names and subterfuge? Being on a blacklist is a surely a sign that you’re doing something right. ‘Haven’t we had enough?’, he shouts at the end, calling on the law to protect him and his shower-dodging mates from ‘the enemy’. In another anecdote, he bumps into Ed Miliband on the tube and demands he launch a public inquiry. At this moment, any pretence to real radicalism withers away.
As an autobiographical piece about friendship and betrayal, Cuckooed is quietly moving and often very funny. As a rabblerousing political piece, it’s a dud.