Excursions in right-on comedy: Mark Thomas and Mark Steel

How about this for an exercise in compare-and-contrast: last week I went to two stand-up comedy gigs at The Junction 2 in Cambridge, featuring two marginally-celebrated left-wing London performers of similar age, appearance, accent and name. I even sat in the same seat for both shows. I therefore felt thoroughly equipped to hold forth on the huge similarities and minute differences between their acts that I fully expected to observe. However…

…the two shows were of course completely different. Mark Thomas (who I saw on the Tuesday) was there to give an account on his latest stunt: an attempt to walk the length of the huge security wall that the Israeli government has recently erected within the West Bank in order to eliminate the risk of Palestinian terrorism (or so they say). Thomas is a confident and very funny raconteur, and his story was full of colourful characters and hair-raising anecdotes, often involving misunderstandings and breaches of protocol with the Israeli army. He’s an old hand at playing the cheeky English chappie abroad in order to extricate himself from trouble, but he does relate a couple of episodes where it seems he, his cameraman and his guides were in serious danger of going to jail. Along the way he met many native Palestinians and Jewish settlers and he got a view of both sides of this very divided society, and observed firsthand how the route of the wall has been engineered so that Israeli settlements have been unofficially claimed back into the Jewish state. A large map showing the route of the walk and the boundary of the West Bank was helpfully displayed at the back of the stage, and I came away thinking that I had actually learned something. Thomas has a book coming out soon, and while one suspects that the content of this show was largely lifted word-for-word from it, this was a much more engaging evening than your standard book reading.

In contrast, Mark Steel (who I saw on the Friday) presented a much more interactive and congenial figure. As he tours the country he’s been collecting odd facts and opinions about the towns he’s visiting via Twitter, and a surprisingly large proportion of his show was dedicated to material pertaining to Cambridge. He relished some of the quotes he’d been sent (“I’ve just had a spectacular brunch”) and seemed surprised by the audience’s hostility to punt touts. The show frequently became somewhat free-form as audience members started to realise that Steel positively enjoys riffing on their contributions, and the evening ended up overrunning by about half an hour (I didn’t care). The rest of Steel’s routine consisted of some slightly predictable, but brilliantly delivered, material about the annoyances of modern life (call centres, remote controls, Subway sandwich bars, the Coalition) and some very funny observations of the many places in the United Kingdom he’s taken his act to. He has an amazing facility with accents, and a highly pleasurable way of spinning out absurd metaphors to ridiculous lengths. I laughed long and hard, and have been unexpectedly recalling funny bits for a couple of days now.

So this was always going to be a specious comparison. Both these men are highly talented, concerned and very funny and either would make a fine guest at your next BBQ, but their current shows are really nothing like each other.

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