Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Following sell-out shows on the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringes for Never Mind the Cossacks – ‘brilliantly conceived’ (FringeGuru.com) – Communist crooner Des Kapital (winner: Gulags Got Talent) storysings the story of Mao’s China, using music by Adele (Hellish), The Smiths (Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Mao), Drake (Hotline Beijing), Robbie Williams (Engels) and lots more. Perfect for entertainment or revision. Simply Red! With award-winning comedian and teacher Andy Thomas (Crimes Against Humanities Teachers). Dead Sparrows not included. Mass participation expected.
Andy Thomas’s alter-ego, Des Kapital, has done pretty well for himself. His show at Sweet Grassmarket has sold extremely well with many sold-out performances and he has worked hard for it. It has become one of the hot tickets for the venue. Maybe, given the unusual fusion of the history of Maoist China with rewritten pop classics, it shouldn’t be such a surprise. Thomas has hit a rich seam with this idea, and he knows his history.
We enter the cramped room to the sound of Chinese Revolutionary anthems. The walls are festooned with Chinese flags and propaganda. There is a large poster of Mao. Images are projected onto a sheet (a decent screen in a room this size would probably be impossible).
Thomas enters wearing the costume of a Communist soldier but he has more the look – slight, pale and bespectacled as he is – of a bank clerk. His voice and performance are similar and this is actually a strength he could exploit. He launches into his songs with enthusiasm but a geeky awkwardness which is amusing. I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but it works.
He is fortunate – the audience are with him from the very beginning. It’s a daring move to ask your audience, with whom you have no connection at this stage, to sing along with your PowerPoint lyrical twists but they do. They are an audience eager to join this manifesto. When the audience aren’t singing, the PowerPoint runs us through crucial points of Chinese history that led to the rise of Mao, and you can certainly see how and why he came to power. We gain further insight into the rise of Communism during a rewrite of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, which has some quite clever moments. I think to myself that if lessons at school were more like this then things would be better for everyone. The Mao years in China are often just accepted as being part of history but many of us in the West really have no idea what happened beyond The Cultural Revolution and the fact it’s generally regarded as not having been a particularly happy period. I learned a lot during this show. There are parallels (not explicitly referred to) between the Trump administration and Mao in regards to the use of propaganda, lack of connection to what is actually happening, self-delusion and punishments meted out to those who do not conform to policy (though, granted, far more extreme in China). Perhaps with a nudge about the results of Brexit, we learn about how China became insular and created its own goods with the use of cottage industry rather than commercial bulk manufacture, and how those goods were of significantly lower quality as a result of not having the right mechanics. Famine followed as impossible targets were erroneously claimed for fear of reprisals, and actual food stocks depleted rapidly. Dissenters were ‘re-educated’. Landlords were executed. It’s a grim tale, and you find yourself thinking that maybe life isn’t so bad in the UK in 2018. The darkness in this comedy is crucial.
There are, however, plenty of small tweaks that Thomas could make to this show. It is a winner because of the idea and the content but I feel it needs tidying up. Some moving about, some trimming, some enhancement. He has already referred to the show technician sitting behind a curtain backstage, with whom he has interacted – yet at one point, he starts talking to him as if he is at the back of the audience when we can clearly see there’s no one there. The music could do with being a little louder during the songs. His jokes are actually quite weak, but this in itself is not a weakness. It wouldn’t take much for him to make them a triumph by exaggerating their shortcomings; a knowing internal despair at what he’s just said. Making the delivery of the jokes poor could work to his benefit if delivered with resignation.
There is also a lot of re-organising of the material that could help it become more cohesive. Obviously, the history lesson happens chronologically and that is the most important thing. It would have been more appealing if the songs occasionally stopped and Thomas threw in one or two of the jokes before going back to it, rather than each song being full-length, which ultimately gives the show an occasional feeling of watching one man do karaoke. This said, his rendition of The Smiths’ ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ should remain untouched. It is glorious. Not only the way it is presented, but the actual mood of the song being a total reflection on the point we have reached in the narrative.
Very near the end of the show, pretty much tacked-on as an afterthought, Thomas reads out an essay written by one of his history students about the industrialist Richard Arkwright. It absolutely has a part in this show, but an opportunity is missed because it’s in the wrong place. We have already covered education, and much of the story covers agrarian productivity. This reading would have been relevant if inserted earlier. But it’s hilarious. It’s an easy choice for the performer to just read a terribly constructed piece of homework, but he reads it in such a flat manner I can’t imagine anyone making it better than Thomas does.
With waving of our Little Red Books, left on our seats, and a superb summation of the era at exactly the right point with a skilled and perfect rewriting of Lukas Graham’s ‘Once I Was Seven Years Old’, the show is over. I understand it has now been cut in length but, at 70 minutes on the day I saw it, it was a good 20 minutes too long. There are only so many times you can change the word ‘now’ to ‘Mao’ before it loses its novelty, and there are a lot of clever rewrites evident already.
Andy Thomas is a really nice guy who has had a great idea with this show. Everything is there for it to be a wonderful piece of work, which it can be with some trimming and mixing of the palette he holds.