It is an old improvisation favourite. Get the audience to shout out odd words, then weave them into a comedy song. Except this time when the man on stage at the Royal Albert Hall asks for suggestions he is greeted with shouts of “Perestroika!”, “Kalashnikov!”, “boroda!” (beard) and, finally, “seledka!” (pickled herring).
This is no ordinary stand-up gig. Rather it is the first time that three of Russia’s biggest comedy stars, Alexandr Pushnoy, Igor Meerson and Anton Borisov, have performed in the UK – and in their native language. They have come to London to entertain some of the 300,000 Russians who now live in the city. The three-night run at the Royal Albert Hall offers no subtitles, so the audience in the Elgar Room is made up entirely of Russians and Russian-speakers. There are more women than men in the crowd, seated at candlelit cabaret tables, sipping champagne and tea. “I’m from a small town in Siberia and I’ve never been to a stand-up gig in my life”, says Alena Kireeva, who has lived in London for 10 years. “It’s brilliant.”
Meerson is first, a charming Peterburger in a navy cardigan with a gentle line in observational humour. Think Michael McIntyre but less bouncy, or Jon Richardson. Dylan Moran has said admiringly of Meerson that he “can shrug using only his face” and his material focuses on the gloomy Russian demeanour, as well as universal themes such as unflattering passport pictures and why Russians believe that saying a word loudly in their own language will make them better understood abroad. So it’s not just the British, then.
Next is Pushnoy, a musical comedian with the eyeliner of Tim Minchin and the versatility of Bill Bailey. He thought he was playing the main hall, he says, and he attacks his electric guitar as if he is.
His act consists of him singing a traditional Russian folk ditty in styles suggested by the audience – reggae, death metal, opera. A pastiche of the Soviet rocker Boris Grebenshchikov (who played the Albert Hall last month) provokes whoops. A Sting impression goes down less well.
After the interval comes Anton Borisov, who looks like a fresh-faced Gerard Depardieu and promises some heat with an opening skit about Russia being the most hated country in the world but quickly swerves into mime and baffling audience interaction before leading the trio in the closing improvised song.
And that is that. Politics, war and Putin are discreetly skipped over in favour of Soviet nostalgia and family-friendly material about Starbucks, men and women and Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?.
So is there much difference between Russian and British comedy? “Oh yes. Definitely”, says Vladimir Bogdanov, a Lithuanian who has worked between his home country and the UK for 15 years. “It’s hard to define and I’ve been working with English people for 15 years, but if I sit down to watch a comedy with them, we laugh at completely different things. It’s a cultural thing. Very few comedians are universal. Ricky Gervais, perhaps.”