Nothing had prepared me for the arrival of Abi Roberts, British stand-up comedian extraordinaire, who blew in like a cyclone out of nowhere, and announced herself to an unsuspecting audience, including your scribe, in no uncertain terms. I was fortunate enough to be among the eclectic few who had descended into a basement club called JimâNâJacks, a characterful speak-easy comedy club in central Moscow, to bear witness to a maelstrom of hilarious anecdotes, delivered at the velocity of a Kalashnikov whose bullets hit home with relentless accuracy.
Among the privileged few were an assortment of ladies and gentlemen of various persuasions, ranging from the UK, USA, Serbia and quite a sprinkling from Russia, equally split between genders. Abiâs background hails from Wales and she studied Russian and Italian at the University of Swansea before embarking on her second journey to Russia, following a spell in the 80âs here with her stepfather who was an attachÃ© at the British embassy here. In the early 90âs she returned to study opera singing at the unique and prestigious Conservatoire- the end product is amply and skillfully demonstrated at various points in her show. To get to this level was no mean feat as her first three weeks, she informed us in the audience, comprised of singing just three notes repeatedly to prepare her solar plexus for the inevitable onslaught later. This fact I could identify with from my own chorister days at Canterbury Cathedral, and our early days consisted of five notes, but we were lucky enough to have a couple of arpeggios thrown into the equation!
I was fortunate to meet the delightful Abi both before and after her performance. First impressions, with her wild frizzy hair that could easily have born witness to an electric shock at some point, were of a slightly demur person, dignified and intelligent, as well as maintaining modesty and decorum, almost to the point of being deferential. However, all that is thrown away in spectacular fashion, once she gets up on the stage, having first been âwarmed upâ by the extremely vociferous and gloriously uproarious support comedian Nikolai. The lady I had just encountered underwent a startling metamorphosis before my very eyes as she proceeded to own the stage and audience alike. Thoroughly engaging, she encapsulated us, having first adopted her âstoogeâ sitting in the first row â a slightly loud-mouthed American who became the unwitting agent into her plan, eliciting gales of laughter from the enthralled audience.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (which she reminded us had a metro station named after him) had this to say on the matter of good humour: âIf you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, donât bother analysing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch him laugh.â Abi delivers in spades, and is a far cry from when she returned to Blighty after her stint here in the Conservatoire, and announced to her mother that she wanted to become a stand-up comic. We shared a good giggle at our respective mothers and their reactions to the exploits of their errant offspring, and Abi ventured that both our mothers would have had endless mutual topics to discuss about us in none too favourable a manner. I well remember announcing to my mother that I had decided to leave Barclays bank after just a few months of utter boredom, and her face was ashen with shock and incredulity, not to mention chagrin. âHow can you do this to me, and what will the village say?â This had Abi nodding sagely as this was a more than familiar battle cry that was played with monotony of a broken record player. âTheyâll probably congratulate me,â I retorted, but it fell on deaf ears. âWait till your father gets home!â I often wondered if there was a special school that parents attended to learn clichÃ©s with which to lambast their wayward children.
My Russian friend, Allyona, who sat next to me throughout, offered some interesting insights at the end while we both chatted with Abi with a couple of drinks to hand. Having heard Abi speak in impeccable Russian, she confided to me that Abi was a Brit who had sort of lost her identity as there was still a plethora of Russia in her âlost soul,â demonstrated by her tales when she takes us through her experiences like sitting down before a long journey with loved ones; her avid descriptions of how revered family are here compared back home where we shove the elderly into an old peopleâs home at the first sign of âanno domini,â whereas the âbabushkaâ is the revered matriarch of the household. Abiâs 1980âs and 1990âs influence is highly prevalent to the point when she returned home singing in a heavy Russian accent!
Abi took us through her university life with a lovely mix of sassy humour, self-deprecation and pizzazz. Her sexual antics were something we could all identify with, and I found myself wandering back to halcyon days when we were 18 and my alma mater, Kings Canterbury, organized a dance with Benenden Girls School, one of the finest ladies school in the country where no less a person than Princess Ann attended. Both sets of participants were squaring up to each other 25 meters apart, separated by the ubiquitous and inviting âpunchâ bowl, not helped by some of us surreptitiously adding a few shots of vodka and cognac. Suddenly both sets of girls and boys, as if pulled by a magnet, joined forces on the dance floor, then pretty soon exited into the ample grounds for potential sexual discovery. The Headmistress, well versed in the shenanigans of youthful indiscretions, spent her time pulling couples out from behind trees and in bushes- literally and metaphorically!
It was at this point that the ladies in the audience fell quiet while the men exclaimed ribald approval. Russian ladies are very coy about such private matters, while their British counterparts shed all inhibitions when fuelled with booze, a sharp comedian and a captive audience. Naturally this all changes when you manage to go through the looking glass on to the other side, and coyness becomes the very antithesis- but you have to coerce them there first!
Abiâs singing prowess plays a major part in her show, with various snippets and excerpts on display with welcome regularity, given her undoubted talents and powerful, resonating voice that was a joy to behold. Indeed, in our subsequent radio interview with our esteemed editor, John Harrison, he managed to persuade her to perform a 15 second aria with which to announce the broadcast. This tied in beautifully with her âblurred linesâ routine with Shakespearian theme, prompting a truly wonderful rendition of song, dance and sublime anecdotal offerings with which to bring her endearing act to a close amidst rapturous applause.
As the great man wrote in The Merchant of Venice: âWith mirth and laughter let all wrinkles comeâ â and so say all of us. Thank you, Abi, for bringing a new dimension to Moscow life, hitherto unseen, and please come back here and play to larger audiences, as more Russians would love to be exposed to your unique brand of humour, play on words, and your brilliant ability to go to the edge of the envelope whilst still maintaining decency and decorum.