John Robins, Soho Theatre India double bill: Urooj Ashfaq, Abishek & Nirmal - Mark Muldoon's Comedy Diary

John Robins. Copyright: Rachel King

God, John Robins has had a rough time of it, hasn't he? It's fair to say his last few shows have tended towards self-reflection, but recent events mean his new tour Howl supercharges that trend.

The show focuses on Robins's closely-entwined anxiety and alcoholism that led him to quit drinking earlier this year. Right out the door there's a good 40 minutes of excellent stand-up here, as he details his obsessive thinking over issues that other people may consider a relatively trivial matter. It's also worth highlighting, however, that for all his talk of having a brain prone to overthinking, often in these stories Robins is proving himself to be an expert at highlighting the relatable ways in which all our minds work.

The show is bracingly open, honest and emotionally complex. After the highs of the first half, after the interval things do cool off a little. His material on billionaires doesn't really get out of third gear. There's an extended story discussing mouldy condiments that highlights his obsessive thinking at probably its most extreme. It very clearly demonstrates the issues Robins faces, but does also count as one too many examples in this show, risking also giving the impression that he's sticking to a set formula when writing stand-up (a problem exacerbated if you've seen his previous shows).

There's enough excellent comedy here to warrant your visit - including great lines dotted throughout the second half - but the main building blocks that make up the latter part of the show can't help but feel a little anticlimactic following everything that came before the interval.

The final section of the show then gets more serious. It's affecting and wise, but isn't implemented with the remarkable skill seen in comparable recent shows, like Ed Byrne's Tragedy Plus Time, or Ben Target's Lorenzo. There's a lot of melancholic beauty to be found in Howl, but what really makes it recommendable is everything that comes in the first half.

Urooj Ashfaq

A bit of a double bill from Soho Theatre India, now. The London venue has run programmes and tours in the country, as well as put on a good number of shows here in the UK from acts of South Asian heritage.

They might be feeling pretty smug about one of them in particular: Urooj Ashfaq, who managed to bag the prestigious Edinburgh Comedy Award for Best Newcomer this summer. She counts as edgy in India (largely because her parents are divorced). Perhaps less so here, but she's definitely a compelling live performer. The most impressive aspect of her performance though, is how original her material is: even committed stand-up comedy fans are not going to hear much in the way of recycled comic thinking here. Keep an eye on her.

Image shows left to right: Abishek Kumar, Nirmal Pillai

South Asian comedians have a tendency to find their audiences via clips on social media, which is definitely true of Abishek Kumar and Nirmal Pillai (1.5 million Instagram followers between them!), two handsome lads performing the same week as Ashfaq, in the basement of the same venue. Their hour is billed as a fully crowd-interaction show, which takes the form of various romance-related set pieces, such as 'Indian Matchmaking', where they sit single strangers on stage and attempt to size up if a relationship could be on the cards (there's much awkward comedy drawn from the fact that the first pair chosen are a man and woman aged 35 and 18 respectively). Not exactly bleeding edge stuff then, but it's inargubly effective and all makes for a borderline-europhic atmosphere. Abishek and Nirmal are extremely recommendable for South Asian audiences, but anyone attending is going to enjoy the ride.

Read previous editions of this column (including Off Menu Live, Rosie Jones, Tom Allen, Munya Chawawa and Kate Berlant).

Mark Muldoon is also available on Instagram and Twitter. He's just hopeful he might one day break the 1,000 follower barrier, let alone 1.5 million.

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