Part play, part comedy show, part documentary, Showtime from the Frontline is a unique hybrid piece of theatre. Its storyline follows the creation of a comedy workshop in Jenin refugee camp in occupied Palestine, battling against demonstrations, curfews, soldiers and tradition to put on a comedy show.
The course was organised by accomplished comedian and political satirist Mark Thomas (along with fellow comedian Dr Sam Beale), who tells the story with a zealous enthusiasm and in compelling detail. He is joined by two of his Palestinian students, Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada, who bring the workshop and students to life on stage. Their comedy delves into the reality of everyday life in Palestine, shunning misconceptions about downtrodden refugees who couldn’t possibly own an iPhone.
Although there were only three people physically on stage, care was taken to ensure the other comedy students were given their time to shine, either by being re-enacted by Faisal and Alaa, or through video clips projected on to a big screen. Many of their skits were performed in Arabic and translated on stage, preserving their original delivery and authenticity.
Understandably, there was plenty of gallows humour. Osama Al-Azzeh, who travelled from Bethlehem and slept on the rehearsal room floor to take part in the workshop, joked how, as he left his mother’s womb, he caught a tear gas bomb and threw it back.
But the comedy was rich and varied, showing a group of Palestinians refusing to be defined by the military occupation. Saja Mary’s jokes portray her passion for K-pop, while Alaa laments the pressure his mother places on him to find a wife.
Directed by Joe Douglas, this is a fast-paced and vibrant piece of theatre, brimming with on-the-spot character changes and lots of physical comedy. At the start of the show, the scene is set using Faisal’s face as a map of the West Bank – his eyebrow is Jenin.
The piece is punctuated with occasional moments of poignancy, when the reality of the occupation isn’t easily converted to comedy. Mark took time to pay respect to the Jenin Freedom Theatre’s founder, Juliano Mer-Khamis, who was shot and killed in 2011.
While the show is hilarious throughout, the performers really come into their own in the second half, a recreation of the comedy show itself, when the plot slows up and the performers’ comedic skill is given space to excel.
Overcoming cultural differences and some of the toughest circumstances, the jokes bring hysterical laughter from Theatre Royal Stratford East’s entire auditorium. The gun-toting occupiers may seek to bring fear to the Palestinians, but their comedy is truly bullet proof.