Daniel Nelson

Mark Thomas (2)

Mark Thomas (2)

Image by Michael

Two Palestinians walk into the Jenin refugee camp’s only theatre, the founder of which was assassinated in front of the building, and say, "We want to be comedians."

It's the beginning of a joke, or a lot of jokes - and you can hear them, the jokes and the two men, Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada, in Showtime at the Frontline at the Theatre Royal Stratford.

The teacher for this crazy enterprise was British comedian Mark Thomas, whose shtick is to get himself involved in absurd situations and spin a show out of the them. It's usually a one-man show and it's always told from a progressive, left-wing perspective, but this time he's brought two performers from the dozen who initially turned up to his Jenin workshop. ("But the people outside are dying and we are inside having fun?")

All three can hold a bare stage, though they get support from occasional video clips.

The joke holding it all together is the absurdity of comedy in the face of military occupation and the hostility of two sets of authority, Palestinian and Israeli. For the woman sitting next to me (who had twice visited Jenin), it was too much: "I think it's hard to make something like this funny." But it isn't hard if you are as independent, mischievous and energetic as these three performers.

At the end of the London show the two Palestinians deliver the stand-up routines they performed at the first presentation of the Jenin Freedom Theatre Comedy Club.

For the previous two hours the trio talk and act their way through some of Thomas' initial comedy training exercises, impersonate other members of the group of would-be comedians (including some very bold women, one of whom is a comedy natural), satirise the po-faced, small-minded theatre committee, and re-live a trip to Ramallah to take part in a rally for hunger-strikers. 

It’s funny (as Thomas points out, Palestine’s taboos, like everyone else’s, are rich comedy material) and serious (you come away with a strong sense of who the oppressors are). Juxtaposing the two is a skill at which Thomas is adept, and he unerringly walks that apparently controversial line between criticism of Israeli government policy and anti-Semitism, which some Israeli officials are trying to blur.

Last word goes to Sam Beale, billed as the Director of Comedy, who teaches stand-up and theatre arts at Middlesex University in London, who worked with Thomas in Jenin but who is an almost invisible presence in the show: “Thomas isn’t interested in painting a picture of the project as comedy missionary work, or the people we worked with or performed for, as victims or heroes. He tells it as he saw it and his performance is, as ever, hugely entertaining storytelling and a testament to the radical power of comedy to subvert our expectations and offer us alternative ways of looking at seemingly immutable situations.”

* Showtime at the Frontline is at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, E15, until 21 April. Info: http://www.stratfordeast.com/

+ 23 April, Check-up: Our NHS @ 70, Thomas talks to Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, 7.30pm, £2.50, Royal College of Physicians, 11 St Andrews Place, NW!. Info: www.OurNHS.org

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