Mark Thomas in England & Son

Dec 6 2023 | By More

★★★★☆      Ferocious

Traverse: Tue 5 – Sat 9 Dec 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

Mark Thomas’s performance in England & Son, allied to an unflinching piece of writing, has a rare intensity. The Fringe First winner is now on tour to the Traverse until Saturday.

Apart from some odd choices in the way it is presented – of which more later – there is very little that can be criticised in a production with righteous fire and a flinty sincerity.

Mark Thomas in England & Son Pic: Tin Cat Entertainment

Ed Edwards’s uncompromising script was written specifically for the comedian and performer Thomas. This is the first time Thomas has appeared in a play written by someone else, and his fame is such that he gets his name above the title of a play that draws partly on his and Edwards’s experiences.

It tells of a father and son, with the father’s time involved in atrocities in outposts of the collapsing British Empire leaving a legacy of violence that is passed down through the generations.

This pulls no punches in its depiction of a country whose wealth was built on enslaving, killing and stealing from the populations of other countries.

Afterwards, there has been no recognition of what had been done to those populations – or to those whose involvement in the stealing and killing created a mindset that could not be shaken off back home, where theft and murder are no longer state-sanctioned.


The father and son’s surname is England – hence the title. This symbolism could easily come across as clunky (not to mention giving Scottish audiences their usual smug get-out that the Empire somehow had nothing to do with them) but is carried off with aplomb by Edwards.

Mark Thomas in England & Son. Pic: Tin Cat Entertainment.

There is a directness and clarity that is arresting and moving. The piece is tremendously well-structured. After depictions of brutality at home, in the care system and from the ‘short sharp shock’ of the 1980s, there are moments of possible redemption. We know, however, from the opening of the play, that these are illusions – just like the conviction of those in the more comfortable world that their wealth is earned rather than being built on the backs of others.

From that opening, with Thomas curled up on the floor screaming, his performance is utterly remarkable. There is a rawness, a bitter reality and a dark humour to it, allied to years of stagecraft and the knowledge of how to involve an audience. The intimate surroundings of Traverse 2 are filled with an atmosphere that is positively electric.

He is tremendously well served by the direction of Cressida Brown, which makes notably good use of the acting space and avoids any of the longueurs that one-handers are prone to. Credit must also go to the movement direction of Simon Jones.

The lighting of Richard Williamson and MJ McCarthy’s sound design are particularly strong at the most traumatic moments, whether at home or abroad.

peculiar structure

This is a production of enormous impact, so the question must be why this is not an automatic five-star review. The answer lies in the peculiar structure of the evening. The play itself comes after an interval, which is precede by a half-hour segment of Thomas discussing his and Edwards’s work on storytelling, drama and stand-up with addicts.

Because of Thomas’s experience and engaging manner, this is always going to be interesting and well performed. However, it comes across as dispensable, even comparatively lightweight, in comparison to what follows.

It is stated outright that the interval is there for the benefit of theatre bar takings. This may be true, particularly in the current climate, but is a less than satisfactory way to construct a piece. Traverse audiences, moreover, are well used to interval-free productions. It leads to decidedly lopsided feel – in this case, more is quite definitely not more.

The play itself, however, is a compelling piece both personally and politically, that demands to be seen.

Running time: Two hours (including one interval).
Traverse, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED. Phone booking: 0131 228 1404
Tue 5 – Sat 9 Dec 2023.
Evenings: 7.30pm. (Traverse 2).
Tickets and details: Book here.


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