Showtime From The Frontline

Seen at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh;

at Tron Theatre, Glasgow,

March 21-24

The Last Bordello

Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow;

at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh,

February 21-24

Reviewed by Mark Brown

SCOTLAND knows the Freedom Theatre of Jenin. The company, from the occupied Palestinian West Bank, which was established in 2006 by the extraordinary, self-defined Palestinian-Jewish director Juliano Mer Khamis (who was assassinated by an unknown killer in 2011), came to the Tron Theatre in Glasgow with their play The Siege back in 2015.

The piece dramatised the military stand-off, involving Palestinian fighters and the Israeli Amy, around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002. Showtime From The Frontline, in which Freedom Theatre actors Faisal Abualheja and Alaa Shehada perform with famous English comedian Mark Thomas, is a very different proposition.

The show tells the true story of Thomas's trip to Jenin to hold a comedy class and club night inside the Freedom Theatre. Abualheja and Shehada were among Thomas's students.

The piece is the latest in an impressive series of shows by Thomas, including Extreme Rambling – Walking the Wall (2011) and The Red Shed (2016), in which, with unlikely success, the comic combines satire, stand-up comedy, storytelling and political activism.

We shouldn't be surprised by the effectiveness of the south London comedian's brand of political theatre. Thomas always was an inventive chap. He is, after all, the man who, back in the days when he had his own satirical show on Channel Four, turned up in Whitehall with a small tank with plastic ice cream cones attached, and told civil servants that he had an ice cream van he wanted to export to Iraq.

He never got that armed vehicle into the Middle East, but, with Showtime, he's gone one better and got visas for two Palestinian actors so they can show UK audiences a side of Palestine that most will never have seen. Abualheja and Shehada play numerous roles, including the various students (female and male) and the socially conservative civic leaders who sit on the board of The Freedom Theatre (and who were deeply sceptical about the comedy club idea).

Assisted by video footage from Thomas's trip to the Freedom Theatre (including film of the club night itself), the show drives a coach and horses through Western media stereotypes of Palestinians. How, for example, do preconceptions of Muslim Palestinian women fit with a young woman from Jenin who wears hijab, speaks a surprising amount of Korean and performs a hilarious skit about her infatuation with a blinged-up South Korean K-pop star?

As ever with Thomas's shows, the hilarity lulls one into a false sense of security, making the sudden moments of poignancy all the more powerful. Footage of a young man, in the early days of the Freedom Theatre, being coached to tell the outside world that he wants to be the "Palestinian Romeo", is charming and funny in equal measure.

The young actor talks movingly about how acting is his Intifada, how theatre is an important part of Palestinian cultural life and of resistance to the occupation. There is, however, as so often in Palestine, a painful twist in this particular tale.

Plaudits are due to Thomas, Abualheja, Shehada and their director Joe Douglas. Showtime From The Frontline is another triumph in Thomas's clever line in activist theatre. Yet again, the self-defined "libertarian anarchist" comedian delivers politics without the polemic.

If only The Last Bordello, which is written and directed by David Leddy for his company Fire Exit and the Tron, was as sensitive to nuance. Set, or so it seems, in a strange, soon-to-be-destroyed brothel in Israeli-occupied Gaza City, it offers a play-within-a-play, which itself contains miniature plays.

However, even this skeleton of a synopsis makes the piece sound more interesting, in structural terms, than it actually is. The play starts from a fascination with the life and work of Jean Genet, the bad boy of the Left Bank radical intellectuals of Paris in the late-20th century.

Genet was a prominent and engaged supporter of the Palestinian cause. Hence the play's nominal setting in Gaza.

This, however, is marginal to Leddy's play. The dramatist is much more interested in Genet's troubled childhood and youth.

The son of a prostitute, Genet was sent out for adoption, but, despite his intellectual promise, an early career in petty crime landed him in the Mettray borstal for unruly boys. The young Frenchman's homosexuality made his early life even more difficult.

Leddy transposes all of this into a dramatised gathering of prostitutes (including a rent boy, pointedly called Fassbinder, who dresses in archetypal French, gay sailor garb) and clients who are, for the most part, devotees of "the maestro" Genet.

Sadly, the drama itself has little of Genet. If it was by Pirandello it might be called Six Actors In Search Of A Play. Unlike the avant-garde work it seeks to replicate, Leddy's piece has very little going on beneath the slightly risque surface.

Indeed, with its seeming excitement at its use of some naughty words and a bit of sex and violence, there is an adolescent quality to the piece. Which is disappointing, given the heights achieved by Sub Rosa (surely Leddy's finest work) in 2009.

Given the growing indeterminacy of the play's location, there is an unarguable logic in designer Becky Minto's set, which is all ethereal white, with chairs in suspended animation (as if borrowed from an Ionesco drama). It's just a pity that some fine actors (particularly Vari Sylvester, Helen McAlpine and Irene Allan) find themselves stuck in such a hollow piece of theatre.