England and Son by Ed Edwards starring Mark Thomas at Cambridge Junction. In Mark Thomas’s first show that he hasn’t written himself he gives a bravura performance. He peoples the stage with characters. As ever, he makes you see the absurdity of modern life – or life that ought to be so much more modern by now.
This play is harrowing, engaging and powerful. It deservedly won four awards at the Edinburgh Festival.
The play, adroitly written by Ed Edwards, is the story of a boy who just wanted to be loved by his dad. The family are called England, so the man and boy are the eponymous England and son. The father takes his eight-year-old son along to work on building sites where he carries out demolition.
The boy says: “My dad voted for Margaret Thatcher because he was in the army once. But he says she betrayed him because she stole his job.”
“Mum says Dad will do anything for money except get a job. He says there are no jobs. She says she’s got three.”
There are so many memorable lines in this play. We hear about former soldiers who “can’t stop killing people even though they are no longer being paid for it.”
Playing all the characters, men, women, and children: including the boy, the father, the mother, the boy’s best friend and his social worker as well as several prison officers, Thomas’s performance is passionate and skilled, compelling, and immaculately timed.
It’s no simple task to get the movement in a multi-character one-man show exactly right but movement director Simon Jones, movement consultant Kate Sagovsky and director Cressida Brown have created this piece so that it flows.
The family breaks up. In the compassionless wasteland that was Thatcher’s Britain, Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw decides that disturbed children who had suffered a rough beginning (and started stealing things) should be given a “short sharp shock”.
Our boy and his best friend Paul are taken out of the children’s home and sent to an adult prison. He says: “Our stealing wasn’t the legalised kind.”
The boy sees his friend Paul made to stand naked in a corridor for 24 hours. The prison officers perform painful enemas on the young inmates by shoving soap high up inside them. When Paul tries to stop this happening to his pal, he is beaten so badly, he has a limp for the rest of his life. Unsurprisingly the two become drug addicts. When the play opens, they are sleeping in a rubbish bin.
But this show is not all grim. When the audience is not holding its breath, we are chuckling throughout at the ironies, at the characterisation. It is powerful though.
Mark Thomas is impressive as he draws the audience in to the world of someone brought up with poverty and domestic abuse and we see into the life of a drug addict.
As Thomas explains after he first walks onto the stage, the show is in two halves. The play England and Son is the second half. In the first, Thomas sits on the stage and explains how Ed Edwards came to write it. The two met in 2016 after Mark had seen Ed’s earlier play The Political History of Smack and Crack.
“Ed won’t mind me telling you this,” Mark leans out to the audience. “He’d just done three and a half years in prison for a drug related crime. The police said he had imported £55,000 worth of cannabis. That really f—ked him off because he said the police were reckoning on the retail value when he was a wholesaler. That’s like rating Aldi goods at Harrods prices.”
Mark Thomas and Ed Edwards have since been working with people in rehabilitation in Manchester. In 1979 there were just 3,000 people in Britain on heroin, Mark says. “And half of them were Keith Richards.”
It was the drug of the wealthy he says but: “Five years into Thatcher’s government there were 330,000 people on heroin.”
For whatever reason, the drug got cheaper. In 1980 people in Scotland said it cost less than beer.
In the rehab group, Ed Edwards encourages people to tell their stories. Thomas relates several tragi-comic tales – again bringing to life the men and women telling them.
This is a fast-moving, thoroughly engaging, thought-provoking show and a masterclass of acting.
England and Son is at Cambridge Junction on Tuesday, October 10 then touring England and Scotland until the end of the year. It ends in Edinburgh from December 5-9. See: markthomasinfo.co.uk
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