Robin Ince – Weapons of Empathy

Aug 26 2023 | By More

★★★★☆      Uplifting

Gilded Balloon at the Museum (Venue 64): Wed 2 – Sun 27 Aug 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

The unfeigned enthusiasm behind Robin Ince – Weapons of Empathy at the Gilded Balloon at the Museum results in an infectiously crammed hour of constant stimulation and considerable hilarity.

The line between the comedy and theatre sections of the Fringe has been blurred for a long time. Of course, there was neurosis and trauma in comic performance long before Sean Hughes won the Perrier in 1990 with his ‘stand-up tragedy’, but this seemed to be the catalyst for a new personal, narrative style that eventually came to dominate stand-up.

Many ‘comedy’ shows are tightly constructed scripts that have obviously benefited from an outside dramaturgical eye. And some‘theatre’ productions are little more than a series of jokes strung together. So there is no apology necessary for regarding the Fringe’s huge spoken-word element as at the very least ‘theatre-adjacent’.

Robin Ince: Weapons of Empathy. Pic Cosmic Shambles

While there are mentions of loss, death and anxiety in Weapons of Empathy, the main impetus here is a much more positive one from Ince. He is a comedian whose dedication to bringing out new shows is legendary, and who may now be best known as half of a double act with the other Brian Cox on Radio 4’s ever-excellent Infinite Monkey Cage.

This show is largely a celebration of books, bookshops and libraries, and how the creation and consumption of literature of all kinds has the capability to create and promote kindness and hope.

There is so much pouring out of Ince’s mind that he has a problem fitting it all into an hour, claiming the show keeps getting longer and including less. Ten minutes before it is due to begin, he is on stage, generously promoting other performers and even more generously handing out free books.

careful consideration

The invitation to write on a card about books or other entertainments that have taught you about other people (‘not for the show, so no pressure’) cleverly gets the audience in the right frame of mind. At the advertised time, he says that the show is about to start but it will not be much different to what you have already seen.

Much of the content that follows may appear random, often with one thought leading to a number of other associations, but the content is on a profound level the result of careful consideration. The attractions of books, whether in themselves, what they represent, what you can find either in their pages or even between the pages – there is so much here that you wish it could last at least twice as long.

Robin Ince Hands out books in Weapons of Empathy. Pic Cosmic Shambles

How many other shows cover Tove Jansson and Pauline Boty, Barbara Cartland and Ivor Cutler, Alan Moore and Margaret Atwood, the influence of Russian cinema on The Magic Roundabout and what Nico found hilarious?

And this is genuinely funny, with more laugh-out-loud moments than you could count. It is also tinged with anger, often in throwaway comments such as the one about libraries and bookshops with Pride windows facing increased vandalism, or the suggestion that donating thousands of books to a prison was just ‘sending on ahead’ considering the upcoming restrictions on protest.

There can be no mistaking the political thrust, however, in making Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin one of the final featured books, with the outrage that was conjured up around that inherently harmless book in a past campaign against a section of society being something that has deep contemporary resonance.


It is certainly possible to question Ince’s contention that books are ‘weapons of empathy’. Roger Ebert famously said the cinema was a machine for generating empathy; Jo Clifford has said similar things about theatre. Yet there are people who read many books, watch many films – and even go to the theatre – who seem to have little concern for others’ feelings.

Yet we surely must hope that Ince’s opinion – that the more you read, the wider perspective you have – is true. Or even that, as he says, ‘emerging complexity briefly defeats the void’. Certainly it would be a cruel soul who watched Ince here and did not come out feeling more energised, more inspired, more optimistic and lighter of heart.

Running time: One hour (no interval)
Gilded Balloon at the Museum: Lothian St, EH1 1HB (Venue 64),
Wednesday 2 – Sunday 27 August 2023
Daily at 1.00 pm
Tickets and details Book here.

Robin Ince’s evening show:
MELONS: A Love Letter to Stand Up Comedy
The Stand’s New Town Theatre (Studio), Freemasons’ Hall, EH2 3DH (Venue 7)
Wednesday 2 – Sunday 27 August 2023
Daily: 8.35pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Robin Ince links:


Instagram: @robinince1969

Facebook: @cosmicshamblesnetwork

Twitter: @robinince


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