Near the beginning of Mark Thomas’s new show, there’s a bold admission. ‘Michael Gove was right’, says Thomas, the veteran activist and comedian, with a grimace. ‘People have had enough of experts.’ The Red Shed, one in a long line of Thomas shows which draw on his years on picket lines, is both an attempt to reckon with the failures of the old left, and an attempt to tell it’s story, in the hope that narrative can inspire where facts and bluster cannot.
The titular Red Shed is a Labour club in Wakefield where Thomas first got involved in politics and started his career performing am-dram political plays (sent up hilariously here). This (almost) one-man show – members of the audience play some of his old comrades with the help of masks – is part-trip-down-memory-lane and part-history-project, as Thomas retraces his steps to find out if a poignant memory of his from the final days of the Miners’ Strike is actually true.
There’s a tension at the centre of the piece. Thomas’s point is that if the left is to tell its own stories, these stories need to be true. But, in another bold change of tack, he stands back at one point, surveying the commemorative plates, medals and posters lining the Shed’s walls, and asks if he is just dwelling in nostalgia, ‘the left-wing equivalent of Cath Kidston’. Then, all of a sudden, he’s off again, spinning yarn after yarn to the delectation of the converted.
Thomas, by his own admission, loves stories. And, in the course of this finely tuned, warm-hearted and very funny show, he proves, yet again, that he’s a master of telling them. The Red Shed is less about picket lines than it is about the characters you meet on them. It’s just hard to shake the sense of defeat, the sense of aloofness, the sense that he, like so much of the left, is desperate to cling on to the past rather than reckon with the present. But, as left-wing nostalgia goes, this is riveting stuff.
Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_