Stand-up comedian Abi Roberts has the honour of being the first UK comic to perform in Russia… in Russian. In her show Anglichanka – which means Englishwoman in Russian – she talks about living in the former Soviet Union in the 90s, and returning after 18 years to perform.
“I speak Russian, I studied opera there in the mid 90s and I come from a family of Russian speakers,” she explains. “I’m a pro stand-up now and I was approached after a gig in 2016 and asked to go to Moscow to do four nights at the only stand-up comedy club on Moscow. The inspiration for the show was going back there and seeing just how much it’s changed since I had to leave in a hurry in 1993.
“So in this show, I discuss my time in the former USSR, gay rights and censorship in modern Russia, the consequences of drinking hardcore vodka, studying opera, using outdoor loos in -20 temperatures, and a dog that uses a human loo. You’ll see how Russia has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union and discover what we need to know about Putin, the meerkat with nuclear weapons and the country described as ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’.”
Abi’s found her show attracts very diverse audiences. “I wrote it as a comedy show, so primarily its targeted at stand-up comedy fans… fans of funny,” she says. “I do get a lot of Russian speakers, Eastern Europeans and politicos in the audience – but then since the show’s been on tour, I’ve played diverse audiences from Glasgow to Barnstaple, via Neath and Newcastle, and the variation in audiences is enormous! I get students in, millennials, older 65-plus people who remember the Cold War, and people of all shapes and sizes. I have developed a wee following from both previous shows and club stuff, so people come and see it because they know it’s going to be me doing a funny show, not a piece of performance art or a TED lecture.”
Abi believes the secret to good comedy is jokes, being funny and working a room: “I see too many shows labelled as ‘comedy’ and too many people labelling themselves as ‘comedians’ nowadays that are neither. You’re not a comedian if you don’t play comedy clubs as a pro comic on a regular basis, however much you tell yourself you are. And if your show is one of the aforementioned pieces of performance art, theatre, a lecture, a pep rally or a TED talk, then it ain’t comedy. People come to comedy shows to laugh and be entertained…that’s the primary purpose of a comedian: to make people laugh. If I make them think about something more deeply along the way, then that’s great. But my primary job is to get folks laughing.
“In terms of individual comedians – well, there are two routes into comedy. One is doing it the hard way great comedians do, working their way up in comedy clubs and venues. The other way is doing it via the medium of comedy competitions. Comedy is not a competition. Competitions do not make you a funny stand-up or a great stand-up…they just make you good at doing competitions. My aim is, and always will be, to be the best stand-up I possibly can. I’m really not bothered about being famous or on TV. If that happens, great. I’m very happy making 500 people laugh every Friday and Saturday.”
Abi will be performing Anglichanka at Edinburgh’s Underbelly Cowgate in August – and is keen for festival-goers to check out her acclaimed and unique show. “It’s very funny, you’ll leave my show uplifted and laughing, not depressed and wondering why you just wasted the last hour,” she promises. “It also contains Stalin, Hyacinth Bucket, a shitting dog and a finale that has been described as ‘absolutely not to be missed’. So come along and see why this show has been pretty much given 5 star ratings across the board!”
It’s not the show’s first Edinburgh outing, though, and Abi’s excited by the opportunity to share it with more people this summer. “I did a first version of it last year on the Free Fringe to a smaller audience, and it got such good reactions from critics and audiences alike that I knew I had to bring it back. Then I got an offer to bring it to the famous Underbelly Cowgate, so here I am! It’s also the anniversary of the Russian revolution this year, so it couldn’t be more timely. Scotland has very strong historic links with Russia, especially Edinburgh, and there’s a big Russian presence in Scotland, so that adds an extra dimension for me.”
She also hopes to find time to see some of the other comedy talent at the Fringe this year. “I’m doing two shows – Anglichanka and a very early stage work-in-progress show called Fat Girl Dancing, so my time is limited, but if I can, I want to see fellow Underbelly stable mates Paul Foot, Jason Manford and John Bishop, who all have shows in the Underbelly. I never get to see as many shows as I’d like to due to sheer exhaustion – the first week is pure slog, the second week you’re recovering from the first and by the third week, you just want to do you show, go back to your flat, eat crisps and go to bed!”