Auckland Arts Festival: Bravo Figaro! - review
Mark Thomas is a stand-up comic, a political activist, a former BBC TV presenter. He’s a man with a profile. I know this from a bit of rudimentary googling; personally I knew nothing of him before I sat down to watch his hour-long one man show Bravo Figaro!, and this is a relevant detail, because the show will probably play differently depending on whether you troop along to it as a Thomas fan or a random festival-goer.
Mininal set: two piles of cardboard boxes and minor household paraphenalia, widely separated on a wide stage, and a rear screen showing a still of a bearded man in hale late middle age. Thomas strides on and starts addressing the audience, breaking off from time to time to address the cardboard boxes. The boxes address him back. They’re standing in, we quickly infer, for his parents and his brother, whose taped voices sound distractingly tinny and distant over Q Rangatira’s sound system.
More distracting, for me: Thomas’s hands. They have nothing to do, but they’re very busy hands. Each syllable he speaks gets a separate bit of random gestural punctuation. We were maybe halfway through the show before I began to get past this, and also before I stopped being irritated by the minority portion of the audience who erupted into peals of delighted hilarity at every mildly amusing remark Thomas offered them.
This is not actually a comedy show, though Thomas is a funny man, in an easy, low-key way. (A couple of NZ-specific additions to his patter feel artificial in this London-centric story, and fall flat.) It’s the story of his relationship with his father, who died last year, and whom he presents as an exasperating and very entertaining character indeed, before pulling the rug out from the audience with some darker revelations. The thread holding all the anecdotes together and pulling us towards a rewarding and emotionally rich ending is his father’s love for opera, “an art form with the narrative skills of a daytime soap and the dress sense of a drag queen”.
I am an easy mark for tales of filial love, which, under all the sarcasm and self-deprecation, this emphatically is. At the same time, the business of retailing one’s own biography to paying punters is a complex one, and something in me resists feeling uplift and closure when I’m presented with a “true” story carefully shaped to create those responses. Life is not so tidy. Someone already familiar with Thomas’s work might find themselves more fully swept up by this show than I was; personal stories are more powerful when you already have a sense of the person telling them. Still, let’s not pretend I walked away dry-eyed.
Bravo Figaro!: Q Rangatira, until March 22. aucklandfestival.co.nz