Howls of despair – and laughter
dmg media (UK)
John Robins: Howl Just The Tonic, Edinburgh Touring until December 15 ★★★★★ Time was when comedians were non-stop funny and gag, gag, gag from top to tail. Some still are. Bobby Davro, of all people, played the Edinburgh Fringe this year and reportedly caused much mirth. But John Robins is not like that. If you’d teleported in from a 1970s variety show to a Robins stand-up gig, you might think you’d walked into a psychotherapy seminar. Very rarely does a comedy performer open up his headspace as completely and unflinchingly as he. But the results can be spectacular. In Howl, Robins details his descent via alcoholism to mental breakdown and the depths of suicidal despair. It shouldn’t be funny. But Robins, in control throughout, knows the precise moment to pull back from the brink and administer the killer quip. After his 2017 Edinburgh Comedy Award-winning show about his relationship with comic Sara Pascoe (the break-up show) this is loosely a companion piece (the breakdown show). Both showcase Robins at his best – acute, painful introspection washed down with crushingly honest soul-baring. A champion of mental health through his podcast How Do You Cope? with Elis James, and a familiar voice from the pair’s Friday afternoon Radio 5 Live show, Robins confesses that he was failing to manage even the most basic of daily life skills. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the breathless opening sequence about his attempts to buy a slotted spoon, a quest that caused a panic attack, an anxiety spiral and a realisation that he was desperately in need of help. Aged 40 and single, he was incapable of buying a spoon. This startling revelation is the trigger for a rollercoaster ride in which he charts his collapse from spoon weeping to the realisation that he had drunk himself to a standstill. Along the way, he works up some dazzlingly constructed heads of steam and heartbreaking comic insight. Most stand-ups these days have a tale of woe to share, with ADHD practically mandatory for any card-carrying comic, but Robins’ tale of raw, naked desolation takes it to another level. It’s a mighty Howl of anguish provoking admiration, unease and even love in equal measure.