Mark Thomas Gambles on the Future

Mark Thomas has been performing in Northern Ireland since 1987, walking where others fear to tread. In those years, telephone warnings came not from anonymous telephone boxes but from his own mother. "You be careful – you be careful when you go over there," she'd say. It was funny, says Thomas, because he remembers her saying that when there happened to be a car bomb in London. "I phoned her up and said, you be careful now, you be careful in London…"

"What's interesting, I think, is to see the changes," he says, with a spirit in keeping with his new performance, "A Show That Gambles on the Future." In a unique evening the piece invites the audience to predict events for the oncoming year and gamble on the outcome, which Thomas hopes will go down better in Belfast than anywhere else.

"I'm really fascinated by the place, because the place is huge fun," he says. "It's enormous fun. There's incredible culture, and there's a subculture and an alternative culture in Belfast that is beginning to be heard more. I'm talking about women's voices coming to the fore on issues of abortion, and gay voices coming to the fore on issues of equal marriage. The last couple of times we've done benefits; a pro-choice benefit and an equal marriage benefit. I'm quite at home in the Black Box."

Despite feeling at ease, there's an incredible amount that workaday English people misunderstand about Northern Ireland. "This sounds like a contradiction," he says, "but it's the simple idea that actually lives are complex, and rich. There's a complexity. People just ignore it and they put them into categories. It's that little Englander awfulness which goes, 'Well the Argies just want our islands, and Europe just wants everything from us.' Northern Ireland creates an existential crisis in the minds of English people, because on the one hand it's Ireland and on the other hand it's 'ours'. It's an intellectual pawn to be moved around in a pub argument."

In the early years Thomas would play venues like the Parador on the Ormeau Road, which meant his first look at the city, like many before him, came exclusively through the prism of nationalist and loyalist politics.

But over the years he has learned about irreligious issues of poverty, class and economics. One lesson came from a chance meeting with David Ervine before his death in 2007.

"I really liked him," says Thomas. "I got into a van as part of the Belfast Festival, picked up by the festival and they asked, "Who has impressed you, politically?" And I said David Ervine, that fella. They said, "Oh aye, would you like to meet him?" I said yeah, that would be great.

"Later, I was doing a sound check and this guy bounces into the room holding a phone shouting "It's David Ervine on the phone for you." I picked up the phone and this voice just goes "Mark Thomas, what do you want? You've just bounced into my life." I said, in a bit of a panic, I wondered if we would meet for a cup of tea?' Which we did, the next day. I really, really liked him. But I have this habit of saying the wrong thing. The words come out wrong. Which is good for being a performer, because saying the wrong thing is funnier, and that's how it works. But David Ervine comes up to me in this hotel and says, "Mark Thomas: I recognise you from your poster." And I said "David Ervine. You're shorter than you look in the murals."

Kiran Acharya

Mark Thomas: A Show That Gambles on the Future is at the Black Box, Belfast, on Thursday 7 & Friday 8 December.

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