Written and performed by Mark Thomas
Directed by Hamish Pirie
Sound design by Helen Atkinson
Lighting by Jack Knowles
Tour Manager Paul Delaney
Tour Tech. Manager Tina Selby
Management Ed Smith at Phil McIntyre Entertainment Ltd.
BRAVO FIGARO! was originally commissioned by the Royal Opera House in 2011 where it was performed as part of the Ignite Festival. The show was developed, re-written and finished for the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it premiered at the Traverse Theatre, the show won a Fringe First and a Herald Angel.
Mark on the show: “Why I wrote a show about my dad”
As a teenager working on my dad’s building sites, I used to cringe when he blasted opera out to the workers. Now I’ve written a show about him – in all his grumpy glory
Ten years ago, my dad, Colin Alec Todd Thomas, was diagnosed with a disease called progressive supranuclear palsy, a degenerative and incurable condition that is often misdiagnosed as multiple sclerosis. He is now nearly blind, can’t walk, can barely talk, can’t swallow properly, has diabetes and dementia, and last week my mum, his carer, was told she could add gout to the list. It is likely he will die of hypostatic pneumonia. Frankly, he was a grumpy bastard to begin with and none of this has improved his mood.
I have responded to witnessing this cruel slide downwards with the appropriate dignity, and written a show about it for the Edinburgh festival. Bravo Figaro! is about my dad, me, love, death and opera. It came about as the result of a series of coincidences. I was the first ever guest on Radio 4’s Saturday Live Inheritance Tracks slot, talking about music that reminds me of my family. This led to Mike Figgis commissioning me to write a show for a festival he was curating for the Royal Opera House; and this became the starting point for Bravo Figaro!, which, after many rewrites, now appears at the Traverse theatre.
But the larger story of how Bravo Figaro! came about started one Friday night 24 years ago, when Ben Elton introduced me to a live TV studio audience. Sweaty with fear, I stared at the crowd – then, mangling vowels in a youthful mockney accent, indignantly shouted one word: “What!” I paused, waited, rode out a few titters then, glowering into the darkness, continued: “Are they talking about …” I paused again, held it, made the wait significant, then bellowed incredulously, “… in opera?”
This was the springboard for a torrent of filth sung fast and furious, a paean to obscenely bad sex, belted out in alternating falsetto and tenor tones, thus reducing an entire artform to a series of grunts, shafts, shags and squelches. Although not the stuff of legend, the routine became my calling card on the comedy circuit, regarded at best as comedic filth with a dash of righteous toff-bashing. Hardly anyone knew that the routine was actually aimed squarely at my dad.
Colin Alec Todd Thomas was a working-class Tory and self-employed builder who discovered a love of opera as an adult and, like many a late convert, his zeal burned brightly. On Sunday mornings, our neighbours were blasted with Rossini and Verdi played at such volume that even now I have an impulse to apologise. He would take a cassette player to work, playing his favourite operas across the rooftops and building sites of south London, singing along at the top of his voice. It was excruciating. As a teenager working alongside him, I would cringe in embarrassment; I was avenged when I spat and sang my obscene parody of his beloved opera on national telly.
My father was born in the wrong century: he wanted a world where men were masters, women were quiet and children had rickets. When he said, “They should bring back the death penalty and if no one else will do it, I’ll throw the switch,” not only did he mean it, he would also have brought his own jump-leads and a car battery as back-up. Unsurprisingly, he was frequently the focus of my early routines.
Over time, my shows became increasingly political and theatrical, and over that same period he became just slightly more tolerant. As the well of material he provided dried up, so did my desire to draw from it. It was not my intention to return to my family as source material again. We had reached a kind of agreeable stand-off. I went off and did exposés on arms dealers and expounded the virtues of the right to protest and, in return, he stopped wincing every time a lesbian character appeared on TV.
Colin Alec Todd Thomas now sits in the corner of a room with his eyes shut, shaking, sweating and unable to remember what he had for lunch. I’m drawn to opera, the artform he loved, in an effort to reach out to him before he vanishes. So the decision to do Bravo Figaro! was more instinctive than rational; but, with so personal a story, it raised the question of how to represent him on stage. Should I treat him differently this time round because his time with us is short? Well, yes and no. Once again, my dad is resolutely lambasted as there seems no point in telling so private a tale without being truthful. And, to be honest, the stories of him being a bastard are comedy gold.
It is not all one-sided: my dad does get to speak for himself, as audio interviews with him and my mum have been woven into the script. But there is one significant change in the way I represent my dad this time around, 24 years after that torrent of filth: now, the image of him standing on scaffolding, singing opera across the rooftops of south London, is the one I cherish most.