Taking in a sampling of the Edinburgh Fringe in the company of a student at Edinburgh University affords a novel perspective. This is our first time at the Fringe since Spawn began studying there, and there is a subtle difference between seeing shows in some of the interesting spaces that happen to exist in the city, and seeing them in rooms in which Spawn takes exams or does some of the other mysterious things that students do. The Pleasance, a zone that we know from our years coming to the Fringe as a complex of performance spaces small and large, is the site of the University’s gym and many of its club and leisure spaces. Pleasance One is a venue I had not previously been in, and it is one of those quietly magnificent spaces that any well-established university has in spades, hidden away in buildings that externally seem too modest to contain them. It is an upstairs raked lecture theatre (or possibly just a theatre) of some vintage – I wasn’t paying enough attention to say what vintage, and it could easily have been constructed any time between the late eighteenth-century and the 1930s. It’s not ostentatiously decorated, but it’s grand enough to let you know that the performer playing here is meant to be something. Our sequencing was a bit unfortunate then, in that we had just seen two excellent women comics in the same small Pleasance venue, immediately before seeing John Robins on this clearly more prestigious stage.
It’s not Robins’s fault that he’s a white, Oxford-educated male, or that we saw the shows we saw that day in the order that we did, or that he won the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2017 for his show exploring his break-up with Sarah Pascoe. Well, to be fair, the last is his fault, and I’m sure it was richly deserved; we didn’t see it, although we did see Sarah Pascoe’s show about her break-up with John Robins, which was superb. It would be strange to see an ECA winner in a smaller venue than this one, and the bottom line is that Fringe promoters attempt to put performers in venues that they will fill. So it is entirely unfair that I walked into Robins’s show with the attitude that I did, saying to myself things like ‘oh, so who’s this guy? Thinks he’s a big-shot does he, in this massive venue? Bet he’s not as good as Catherine Bohart.’
Of course the fact that Spawn had curated our day at the Fringe, as she usually does, played in his favour, since I trust her judgement implicitly on all things comedic, and I knew he was going to be good. But as you would expect of a comedian who has been in a relationship with Sarah Pascoe, Robins is a left-wing, tolerant, liberal, self-aware kind of guy, and as soon as he opened his mouth, and began to examine his own behaviour with candour and criticality, I heard virtue signalling. I couldn’t really attempt to assess this objectively – I guess I’d have to investigate his work in detail and at length, but as I haven’t done so, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, with the simple reservation that it’s easier for a individual whose public identity is unmarked to do what Robins does. From his position of invisible but obvious privilege, he tackles difficult topics, particularly difficult for white men, without flinching. He courageously exposes his own insecurities to public ridicule. He’s on tour with this material, so there’s really no point going into detail, but it is self-reflective, observational comedy.
In many ways his show was less memorable than the shows of the two women we saw immediately before him. His schtick has no gimmick, other than the memoir readings with which he punctuates Hot Shame, and precisely because his identity is not marked in any obvious way, it’s a little difficult to get a handle on exactly what he’s doing, or what he’s like. He’s presents as something of a cypher, the kind of average guy you might have in your circle of friends, who if you were asked to describe him would probably elicit an adjective like ‘nice’, or ‘charming’, rather than ‘extravagantly tattooed’, or ‘a force of nature’. However (a big ‘however’, this), he’s one of the most technically accomplished comics I’ve ever seen in action. The entire show is programmed like an orchestral symphony, with intertwined affective and thematic narratives building carefully towards a precisely measured conclusion. He systematically dismantles his white-male seeming of competence and autonomy, and exposes a seething wort of self-doubts and dependencies, the kind of deep vulnerabilities that less articulate men have traditionally resorted to violence to conceal. These are of course things with which we can all empathise, irrespective of our identities, and Robins carefully teases that commonality out of his privilege, leaving the audience with the impression that he has nothing left to give. This is of course a contrivance: as with all performers, his public face is a performance, but it is a performance of humility, delivered with such breathtaking skill, that it is hard not to like him. And even harder not to laugh.