Wasn’t it Barbra Streisand who said, and I think it was, People – People who need people – are the luckiest people in the world…. I’m sure that’s an attitude that Rob Auton would 100% get behind. It’s a sentiment that always reminds me of a great Tommy Cooper line: A friend in need… is a pest, get rid of him.
If anyone treads the thinnest of lines between stand-up comedy and spoken word, it’s Rob Auton. We saw him at the Royal and Derngate four years ago with his Talk Show, which I described at the time as an intelligent, thoughtful and emotional hour’s comedy. Since then, not only have we had the Covid pandemic and a plethora of Prime Ministers, but also the return of Rob Auton with his Crowd Show. And, guess what? It’s another evening of intelligent, thoughtful and emotional comedy. I guess I didn’t really expect him to change.
As before, the gentlest of first halves brings Rob to the stage, delighted to be performing again, and genuinely thrilled (I really don’t think he’s pretending) to meet the good Burgers of Northampton on a Friday night out out. He quickly elicits which of us have seen him before (a good third, I would estimate) and he’s chuffed that we’ve returned. Front row John had already seen his Crowd Show in Edinburgh, and Rob is gobsmacked that he’s come back for a second helping. He’s easily distracted by sweet-rustlings; he has to investigate the nature of the individual sweet concerned (Maltesers). He has a well-prepared riposte for the guy who leaves shortly before the interval, assuming he couldn’t wait to nip to the Gents; but in fact he’d gone to place a wine order for the interval. Pinot; although he never clarified if it was noir or grigio. The riposte was, therefore, inappropriate and not used.
I’m going into this kind of detail about the audience behaviour, by the way, because Rob himself takes a lot of time considering what his individual audience members get up to during the show. He sees it as a shared experience; what the audience does is just as vital to the nature of the performance as what he does. And he’s right; before the second half starts, a chap from the back of the crowd runs up and places a box of Maltesers on the stage. It’s all integrated.
Meanwhile, back to the show. Mr A takes us on a journey through his career to date; how he moved from advertising to performing, initially via the medium of poetry, through all his one-man Shows, to where he is today. He remembers aspects of those performances, his content and his intentions with each. It’s a cross between Rob Auton’s Greatest Hits and This is Your Life.
He returns after the interval as a heckler for his own show, sitting at the back calling for it to start, setting up a chant of We Want Rob! which he naturally obliges by eventually returning. The Crowd Show, as such, starts. It’s based on a Google search regarding advice on Speaking To A Crowd Of People (which is what he’s doing). A mangled file of papers in his hand, to which he apparently frequently refers, he goes through the list of individual pieces of advice one by one, showing how he is conforming to Google’s suggestions. It’s charming, frequently funny – although rarely belly-laugh inducing – and strangely reflective. He also plays some games with us; it’s a way of cementing the bond between audience and performer that probably works best when the audience is fully behind the idea. I’m not entirely sure we were.
Rob Auton has an almost unique ability to tell a universal truth in a quiet but winning way. As an example, he remembers an occasion where he saw his (then) fiancé at a distance texting someone and looking really happy to be doing so. Whoever it is she is texting must mean a lot to her, he thinks internally. And then he receives her text and realises it is he of whom she is thinking lovingly. And that’s a perfect, simple, totally natural moment of sheer joy.
I must be honest though – The Crowd Show didn’t fully engage me in the same way that The Talk Show did; whether it was due to his sticking rigidly to the structure of the Google Advice throughout the hour, or whether his observations and thoughts weren’t quite so revelatory, I’m not certain. He’s drawing very near the end of his tour, but no doubt he’ll be back with more reflective emotion soon!