‘Anglichanka’ translates to ‘Englishwoman’ in most Eastern European countries. Abi Roberts, upon first impression, appears to be anything but. Under the utilitarian disco of Boney M’s Rasputin, the stage is invaded by a figure striding past the audience, complete with fur ushanka hat. Barking dialogue with a glottal inflection and a mean expression, she turns to face the audience and immediately breaks character. A full smile drops her "cod Russian accent" into an opposing anglicized alternative, quickly settling into her broad, native tongue.
Her ability to set a scene, using her body as an instrument of comedy, is enrapturing.
Only then does Roberts embody the ‘Englishwoman’ her title claims. Her tufts of blonde hair bobbing in spirited conversation with the crowd, this woman couldn’t be further from the stoic form attempting that famous ‘squat-and-kick’ folk dance moments before. Instead, the real Roberts is irresistibly charismatic and deliciously unruly. Personality radiates from her as she regales the audience with the tale of her experience as a foreign student in Gorbochev’s Russia.
In a practice of displacement, Roberts turns her audience into students with lessons of Russian language and history. Instructing us in exercises of culture, we become the people of her stories as we learn how it feels to embody a Russian audience. Roberts embodies enough of Russia herself: lapsing into the language, as if accidental, unites the tone of the show with its content. The extensive use of Russian dialect is occasionally more alienating than enlightening. For the majority of the crowd, these unbroken sentences of Russian were unintelligible - stilting the flow of the set with no obvious reward. This extra dimension proves worthwhile, however, where the jokes do feel enriched by its monotonous “glug” - whether through realism or creating a punchline.
Her ability to set a scene, using her body as an instrument of comedy, is enrapturing. A particularly evocative impression of her snobbish mother peppers her set to create a fully realised parody. Roberts collates an international array of characters deeper than the stereotypes she acknowledges. This applies to her own character as well - self-aware yet unapologetic, Roberts is loudly and instinctively funny.
Yet, for all the uncomplicated laughs, this same instinct lends a deep sincerity to her story. The set builds into a poignant meditation on Roberts’ personal relationship with Russia and the people she met during her time there. These reflections are intensely interesting, which makes their scarcity frustrating: one fascinating take on Russia’s long-standing homophobic tendencies wastes ripe potential for development. Anglichanka is filled with quietly brilliant moments that risk being all too easily missed - but that just makes them all the more sweet.