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John Robins: The Darkness of Robins, Edinburgh preview

| Comedy, Festivals | 01/08/2017

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In the third of our Edinburgh Fringe previews, Ian Cater speaks to comedian, broadcaster and Queen fanatic John Robins about recovering from post-breakup despair to find humour in his painful and funny new show, The Darkness of Robins.

Professionally, John Robins has had an excellent year.  The Bristolian stand-up’s new show, The Darkness of Robins, is the most distinctive of his career, well-placed to become one of the hits of the Fringe.  His previous set, Speakeasy, has been condensed into a prestigious Live from the BBC episode available on iPlayer.  And the cult Chortle-Award-winning Radio X show and podcast he hosts with close friend Elis James is going from strength to strength, passing five million downloads and raising ‘Brand Robins’ to deservedly high levels.

However, the past eight months have been emotionally turbulent, as Robins has struggled to deal with his split from fellow comedian Sara Pascoe after three years together.

Any breakup’s hard, but this one has been exacerbated by Robins’ long battle with what he describes as ‘the darkness’ and a very personal comedy style that saw him speak so fondly of Pascoe in Speakeasy: “It hits me like a train that the only thing that makes my life fun and engaging and bearable has left – not just the country – but the hemisphere for a month. … My mind begins to fill with all the everyday things that lose their magic when she’s not there.”

The Show Must Go On

Robins managed to continue broadcasting, and pretended he and Pascoe were still together when performing Speakeasy and recording Live from the BBC.  But inside, the 35-year-old was in pieces.  One of his coping mechanisms was to write a show about it, which – after being well-received at summer festivals – arrives at Edinburgh’s Pleasance Courtyard tomorrow.

The Darkness of Robins candidly describes the separation and its fallout, initially with a light touch (referring to Pascoe simply as a ‘flatmate’ who moved out) before moving into a heartbreakingly graphic level of detail – a change in tone from his previous live work.  The sections in which Robins describes himself crying on the toilet and imagines an alternative Halifax advert are particularly visceral, leaving the audience in no doubt who instigated the parting of ways.

2017JOHNROD_PDSome might see this as a slightly unsightly attempt to wash dirty laundry in public.  But that ignores the fact the couple have already soiled their clothes onstage – as a counterpoint to Speakeasy, Pascoe sent up their attempts to conceive and Robins’ modest earnings in Sara Pascoe vs History.  Plus Pascoe has the right of reply in her latest LadsLadsLads show, which – rather uncomfortably – she’s performing at the same venue during the Fringe.

And Robins’ latest work, although no doubt cathartic, is by no means a score settler.  Instead, it’s a painful, funny and – at times – painfully funny study of human emotion, which never flinches from accepting its narrator’s shared responsibility.  As Robins concludes, “I am the only common factor in every mistake I’ve ever made.”

Despite its downbeat subject matter, the equilibrium between darkness and light is largely well-struck.  “Finding the balance wasn’t easy at first,” he says, “as things I find funny saying to friends can end up sounding extremely bleak onstage.  As my job is fundamentally to make people laugh, those segments had to go.  But my stand-up’s always personal.  My first Edinburgh show nine years ago was about a relationship ending, and it always covers my experience of the year and worldview.  So it’d be strange not to address what happened.  Maybe even a bit dishonest.”

Honesty’s important after Robins has revealed so much personality on commercial digital indie radio.  “I feel able – perhaps even compelled – to be more authentic with my stand-up now.  Because if you’re talking to people as ‘you’ for three hours a week on radio, you can’t really have a different persona when people see you live.”

Radio Ga Ga

Robins’ popularity alongside James on the Saturday afternoon Radio X show – where he speaks openly about his ups, downs and constant love for Queen – has created a burgeoning audience for his stand-up.  “Every comedian wants to have people pleased to see you,” he says.  “When you first start, your battle is to convince audiences you’re funny.  So when you walk out to people who’ve already been listening to you for a year, it’s hugely transformative.

Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 14.35.07“I’ll never forget taking The Elis James and John Robins Experience to The Phoenix last year.  It was just incredible.  And you don’t actually need too many fans for that to happen regularly.  A nice tour is between 5,000 and 10,000 seats, so you don’t need millions to make that really special experience.”

On that basis, the 7,123 fans who identify themselves on Facebook as PCDs (podcast devotees) represent a wise investment.  Robins and James have gained those followers through over 500 hours of entertaining badinage (witnessed nicely in their Drunk History episode) and increased assurance in the studio.

“I’m not sure that we’re fantastic broadcasters,” Robins says modestly, “no matter what we might say in jest.  It’s more that we’ve got a fantastic relationship and understanding of each other.  I wanted to do a radio show with Elis for years, because our weekly chats on Sunday night always made me laugh so much.”

Their wonderful chemistry might soon find a TV platform, with a co-written sitcom script currently “sat on someone’s desk”.  Like all good double acts, they play heavily on their contrasts, with Robins’ exaggerated intellectual arrogance and fickle temperament softened by James’ everyman Carmarthenshire positivity.  But it’s their willingness to address mental health matters so regularly and delicately that has created an unusually tight bond with their listeners.

“We never set out to have it as a theme,” Robins explains.  “It just came about through me being me, and Elis being Elis.  I don’t like referring to my issues as ‘depression’, which is why Elis coined the phrase ‘the darkness’.  I think that’s what connects with people.  Because we’re not turning it into a somber discussion about mental health.  We’re just talking about being sad some of the time.  And happy some of the time, too.

“Shows are about connecting with people.  If you tell a funny story about a panic attack, it’s more likely to resonate than if you go: ‘Today we’re talking about depression.'”  That’s another reason for addressing the breakup in his new show: to access that empathy and perhaps help others deal with the healing process.  “You don’t want to be told something’s important.  You want to realise that yourself.  So I say my experience of life and hope people associate with it.  I also find it quite liberating and funny to talk about sad subjects.  Someone once told me they like the fact we talk about miserable things with a lyrical tone.  I thought that was a nice way of putting it.”

Breakthru

In the current crowded comedy market, it’s hard for performers to carve themselves a niche.  But Robins could achieve this with his new darker, thoughtful material and unusual delivery – full of pauses and carefully selected vocabulary – which is closer to early Stewart Lee than to his thirty-something contemporaries.  Indeed, he and Lee trod a similar path with an Oxford University degree, an immediate preference for TV and then a gradual move into standup influence by initially more successful housemates.

“I’ve always been obsessed with comedy,” Robins explains, “but growing up I mainly watched Bottom or anything Armando Iannucci ever became involved with.  Stand-up never really grabbed me.  After uni, I was in a vague limbo of writing sketches and ideas for TV programmes, but not really knowing what to do with them.  Then I found stand-up and it was like being able to write your own programme and broadcast it that evening.  It cuts out so many of the barriers to making what you want, so that’s a very appealing thing if you’re creatively minded.”

His development was fast-tracked through living in the so-called Bristol Comedy Flat in 2006, alongside then up-and-coming comedians Russell Howard, Jon Richardson and Mark Olver.  Robins describes this as the making of him.  “It was year of 24-hour training in comedy.  Conversation was constant comedic repartee back and forth, learning to make the right joke at the right time and accepting that you’ll occasionally pick a wrong ‘un.  It encouraged me to pursue work where I can say what I’m thinking, and I’m so grateful I get to do that now on radio and onstage.”

Counterintuitively, Robins says being in a happy place professionally will make it easier to discuss his darkness at the Fringe.  “The more comfortable I am with what I’m doing over the year, the less I worry about Edinburgh.  So this year, where things have gone well work-wise, I don’t feel concerned about reviews, awards or ticket sales.  I’m just focused on doing a good show.  Because all those other things can distract you from your main job, which is to be funny for an hour in my own way.”

John Robins is performing ‘The Darkness of Robins’ from 18.40 at Pleasance Courtyard between 2nd-13th and 15th-27th August (tickets here).  For more details on his upcoming projects and 2018 UK tour, see his official website or follow him on Twitter @NomadicRevery.  All images used above are © Rachel King.

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