The best combination of music, humour and real-life drama I heard last week was on Radio 4. Mark Thomas, known for political comedy, gave us Bravo Figaro, his standup show from last year's Edinburgh festival. Since then he's taken it on tour, apparently, though it had passed me by. I feel very lucky to have stumbled across it on late-night radio.
Essentially it was a short journey around his dad, Colin - "the rudest man in south London" - with Mark being funny and truthful, and peppering his tale with recorded interviews with his family. We knew that Colin wasn't well from the start: the show opened with the sound of him breathing and talking with difficulty, his wife, Mark's mum, fussing and chattering around him like an anxious sparrow. Mark performed with bombast and to-the-gut honesty; the show rattled along like a juggernaut. You were breathless keeping up. Every time you thought Mark was showing off, he called himself out. Every time you found yourself turning his dad into a cute character, Mark confronted you with what was real. The story, with all its stories within, was brilliantly told.
When Colin had been well he'd loved opera, and quite unbelievably Mark found himself in a position to get Royal Opera singers to perform in Colin's bungalow. Which they did, and we heard it, and it was great; but that wasn't what left the punch to the heart. That was done by Mark, who closed the show by acknowledging that this was a staged goodbye to his dad, that the real end would be "messy and smell of fear" and would lack the delight and beauty of this, his wonderful, powerful tribute. And then the programme ended and the announcer told us that Colin had died that morning.Miranda Sawyer, The Observer, 6th April 2013
Mark Thomas originally devised Bravo Figaro (Monday, 11pm, Radio 4) for the Deloitte Ignite series at the Royal Opera House. It's an hour-long performance devoted to the story of his father Colin, an opera-loving builder. We are so prone to stereotyping people and their musical tastes that the idea of an opera-loving builder is far more surprising today than it might have been in the past. More important to the story is Thomas's description of his father as "a word that cannot be used on Radio 4".
The temptation is to say Colin "was" all the above but he's still alive, albeit severely handicapped by progressive supranuclear palsy. Thomas makes it clear that, because of his father's history of domestic violence and the lack of warmth between them, "this is not a story about forgiveness and redemption". It nonetheless culminates in his well-connected comedian son bringing professional opera singers to perform in Colin's retirement bungalow in the course of taking, as he freely admits, a very sad situation and making a piece of entertainment out of it.
Thomas has the hard-breathing attack a monologist requires and varies his line and length enough to keep you listening. What's interesting about the programme as radio is the way his sleeve-tugging delivery is regularly interrupted by lo-fi recorded interjections from his father, mother and members of his family, pulling him from the brink of grand gestures that hit the dress circle, back under the low ceiling of life.David Hepworth, The Guardian, 30th March 2013