'Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong.' Did Mark Thomas really hear this song of comradeship as he passed that Victorian school? Was it really sung by young voices, echoing out to fathers, brothers and uncles, as the miners marched back to the colliery at the end of the strike in '85?
Mark's told this story often enough, but it occurs to him that in doing so he may have accidentally created a fiction. In turning the truth into a compelling narrative, he may have embellished one step too far. And that is a problem in this 'post-experts' era, when the stories we tell carry incredible weight.
And so he sets out to discover if this memory really happened. To do so, he returns to his spiritual home, the Red Shed. This is the home of the Labour club in Wakefield. It is a 47 by 18 foot shed, filled with memorabilia, nostalgia and strong bonds of friendship. And it is the scene that he recreates on stage.
It is the 50th anniversary of the shed, and as the commemorative events unfold, Mark begins to question not only his own story, but the story of the shed as well. The shed, and its members, are stuck in the past, failing in their duty to tell the stories of today's working class. The stories that explain why a pensioner's response to a new shopping centre is simply fear they'll take away the pound shop.
Don't be mistaken; this isn't a dour lecture on the history of the Labour movement. Nor is it 75 minutes of self-indulgent sentimentalism. Mark Thomas is an incredibly skilled comedian and this show is full of sharp wit and big laughs.
He gets the audience involved (I did enjoy seeing an entire audience stand up and sing a version of the Red Flag) and he creates a community out of strangers. On the other hand, he also delivers stark and uncomfortable truths with such impeccable timing that they hit you hard. It is this delicate balance between laughter and narrative weight that makes this show so compelling.
The Red Shed is a love letter in the truest sense: full of affection and tenderness, but also heartache, questioning and rawness. You will laugh, heartily, but you will leave tinged with sadness and, as I suspect Mark hopes, the motivation to move beyond armchair activism.
(This review first appeared on The Daily Info)