Activist and stand-up Mark Thomas comes to Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Comedian, activist and journalist Mark Thomas comes to Bury St Edmunds with latest show Trespass thi

Comedian, activist and journalist Mark Thomas comes to Bury St Edmunds with latest show Trespass this week - Credit: Archant

Rabble-rouser Mark Thomas wants us to stand up and turn our corporate squares and sold-off communal spaces back into the playgrounds of our youth. He spoke to entertainment writer Wayne Savage.

Comedian, activist and journalist Mark Thomas comes to Bury St Edmunds with latest show Trespass thi

Comedian, activist and journalist Mark Thomas comes to Bury St Edmunds with latest show Trespass this week - Credit: Archant

Thomas remembers going to this amazing adventure playground in Battersea Park as a kid. Closed in 2012, the Conservative-run Wandsworth council promised it would re-open, which it did; albeit as a privately-run play-zone.

“The kids helped make it and it was really fun. Now it’s run by a company and you pay £18 to get in. F*** that. The idea you’ve privatised play... it’s just absolutely outrageous,” says the Guinness World Record holder for the most political demonstrations in 24 hours, fondly referred to by the Metropolitan Police as “general rabble-rouser” and “alleged comedian”.

Trespass, his sell-out Fringe 2015 show, picks up where previous show 100 Acts of Minor Dissent left off. Combining theatre, stand-up, activism, a dash of journalism and a dollop of mayhem, the multiple award-winner asks that if the ramblers of the 1930s were here now, what would they do to open up the cities? How do we turn the skyscrapers and corporate squares into our playgrounds?

Inspired by the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932, he’s turned his eye to how the Government has sold off much of our communal space, from playing fields to public rights of way, setting out to try to carve a small space in the urban world where mischief and random chance can lurk.


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Like Thomas, I remember when the world was one big playground.

“Now it’s a pre-approved, pre-planned, privately-owned, pay and display, playground; where the idea of discovering adventure is about your ability to pay. There’s a real sense of adventure people lose and that’s what the show’s about, really. About trying to find those adventures and challenging that dull hand of bureaucracy and that awful bourgeois (notion) of ‘let’s make sure everything’s clean and organised’.”

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Some would say that’s a good thing, given today’s world. Others argue it allows people to mask their motives under the blanket of health and safety.

“Part of the show is about public spaces protection orders (like a geographically-defined version of asbos) where you’ve got councils who can actually make being homeless illegal and give you a £100 fine. Or they can ban pavement art, busking... There’s one council that wants to ban assembling in groups of more than two in an intimidatory fashion. It’s absolute nanny state rubbish.”

Comedian, activist and journalist Mark Thomas comes to Bury St Edmunds with latest show Trespass thi

Comedian, activist and journalist Mark Thomas comes to Bury St Edmunds with latest show Trespass this week. Photo: Vanessa Furey - Credit: Archant

There’s no long-term benefit to selling off communal land, he argues, branding it as short-term emergency fundraising before musing how the country blew its chance to reform the banks, regulate wages and reset its priorities after the 2008 crash.

“What happened is the world decided to attack immigrants and the poor and blame them; say ‘there’s hardworking poor and undeserving poor’ and ‘the immigrants are scroungers and they’re coming over here and going to destroy our way of life’. Instead of saying ‘actually, we’ve got a chance to change something, be part of a move that creates communities that actually value each other.”

Reinvigorating that sense of community is what Trespass is all about. It’s about what we can collectively do to have fun in urban and rural public spaces; how we can claim them back.

“These are amazing places for me. These are places where we can play, where you can find yourself, create your life, create alternative existences if you like. That idea you don’t have to put up with the humdrum, the everyday. To actually say ‘we have rights here where we can experience things which we might not normally experience’. For me... what we can and can’t do are really important rights.”

Growing up in London, he remembers seeing band after band at Hammersmith’s Clarendon Hotel Ballroom or concerts outside the old Greater London Council building. Everywhere you looked was brimming with excitement, creativity and fun.

“A lot of those things have gone. If you go outside the old GLC building now, although there’s the Thames footpath there and you have a right of way, it’s owned by a Shanghai property corporation and you can’t hand out a leaflet, you can’t demonstrate or make a speech. You can’t busk unless you’re pre-approved, you can’t form an assembly or march down there. All these rights we should have are now gone in that particular space because it’s privately owned and they’ve got their own private police force and their own private laws in place,” claims Thomas, who is at Bury St Edmund’s Theatre Royal on February 3.

He’s very much of the belief the way to reclaim these spaces is by using them, by getting out there and having fun in imaginative ways.

“For example, one of things we did is when the tide goes out on the Thames. There’s a beach and no- one’s quite sure who’s in charge of it, so you can do things. We organised a punk rock gig down on the beach. We just got in loudspeakers and generators, publicised it and we had 500 punks (come along).

“There’s a bit of the Thames footpath that’s inside a house. We actually got 200 people in there and organised a comedy club. There are all sorts of things you can do that are exciting and challenging.” Driven, he confesses, by ego ? “Any performer who denies they’ve got an ego is a liar, an idiot or not a very good performer” ? and an obsession with finding new ways of doing things and exploring ideas, he loves merging activism, journalism, theatre and stand-up.

“That (idea) we can create events and they become part of a show, that what we can do can be thought-provoking, ground-breaking; that we can challenge ourselves; not just go ‘oh I know everything and I’m going to tell the audience it’.

“I’ve been performing for 30 years and to this day they thrill me still. I wanted to do something that was interesting, that people hadn’t seen before and that was challenging and full of fun. It happened by accident that I ended up here, there’s been no design and I’ve enjoyed the journey too.”

Thomas ? who’s stopped arms trading and multi-national infrastructure deals and investigated everything from Coca-Cola to inheritance tax avoidance ? is excited that, as a nation, we’re rediscovering our ability to challenge.

“I want audiences to have a good time and to leave feeling they can go and do a bit of this; everyone can make a change ? that’s the important bit.

“There’s a culture which is about art and craft and dissent, that go hand in hand, and I feel that’s on the rise again.”

And he knows a thing or two about dissent, having been arrested numerous times and getting into countless scapes during his career.

“You know, there are so many unutterable idiotic f**** in the world that it would be a shameless waste of a life if you didn’t get into the odd argument with one or two,” he laughs.

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