Marjolein Robertson on her soul-baring comedy breakthrough: 'I'd be crying once or twice a show'

Ahead of her appearances at this year’s Glasgow Comedy Festival, stand-up Marjolein Robertson tells Jay Richardson how therapy informed her Fringe hit Marj, and how she hopes to show audiences ‘a different side’ of her native Shetland

Marjolein Robertson’s stand-up blends tales from her life with the fantastical folk traditions of her native Shetland – stories of trolls, witches and moons that you can take a bite out of. Performing with a feyness that can seem naïve (“I play myself dumber than I am”) she was surprised when early reviews called her “surreal”, having imagined that she was simply observational. Now based in Edinburgh, she says she revisits the islands nightly “in my dreams”, and she hopes to return home again if she can become a successful scriptwriter – “a little lady with my croft and garden”.

However, with ADHD and a propensity to live dangerously for the anecdote, hers is a modern, manic pixie energy. Over lockdown, she swelled her fanbase by sharing stories on the streaming platform Twitch. Pansexual, she's candid about relationships and she owes her career, at least in part, to an infamous 2015 myth regarding former Prime Minister David Cameron and a dead pig.

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It's all part of her unconventional path into stand-up. Her first name, like her mother, is Dutch, and Robertson got into improv comedy in 2014 while living in Amsterdam. Subsequently studying in New York at the legendary comedy venue and training centre Upright Citizens Brigade (alumni include Amy Poehler and Donald Glover) she was minded to also try stand-up.

“I just talked about the David Cameron thing and it was wild, nobody knew about it,” she recalls. The club owner assumed she was professional and tried to book her but she was returning to Shetland. Taking this “ego boost” with her, however, she founded an improv group and in 2016 applied to do her first Edinburgh Fringe hour, despite having never performed a proper 20-minute club set.

Since then she progressed steadily until her Edinburgh breakout last year, when her show, Marj, was nominated for two awards and attracted glowing reviews, leading to her embarking upon her first UK tour and placing third in The List magazine's Hot 100 rundown of Scotland's cultural movers and shakers. What makes this even more remarkable is that the show only “clicked” the night before the Fringe began. Disclosing a dark episode from her past, previews found her either procrastinating and talking “nonsense for an hour” or diving right into it and “bringing the room down”, to the extent that she found herself asking if the crowd needed a folk story to cheer them up. So she started talking about a Selkie woman, whose sealskin is stolen by a fisherman, forcing her to stay on land and become his wife. Here, happily, Robertson found the balance of light and shade, fantasy and reality that her show needed.

“I had never really appreciated that the story of the Selkie Wife is about being in an abusive relationship, where someone has the upper hand of control over you to the point where you're not yourself anymore” she reflects. “That analogy makes it easier for the audience to digest before I reveal a few things.”

She had hoped to perform the show in 2022 but found herself incapable of doing so until she sought help. “I spent a lot of time with my therapist, talking about the situation, but also the fact that I was doing the show,” she explains. “So she and I could actually write it in a way that I could deliver it on stage and talk about it in ways that are helpful to others who might have been similarly affected. There are still jokes, but the pace changes and there are longer moments of reflection, just so no-one gets left behind.”

Marjolein Robertson PIC: Trudy-StadeMarjolein Robertson PIC: Trudy-Stade
Marjolein Robertson PIC: Trudy-Stade

Friends in comedy worried about her delivering such a soul-baring performance each day, not least as she was also doing a one-person production of the play Me, Myself and Mary (Queen of Scots) by Raymond Friel for the first half of the Fringe.

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“So that’s really slapstick, all over the place as I'm playing all the characters, then there's an emotional bit” she recalls. “I’d get off stage, all sweaty, have to wash, eat and go to do Marj, and I'd be crying once or twice a show. So then I thought I'd better go straight home. But for the first five nights of the Fringe I was having full-on sleep paralysis and night terrors.

“Then I started going out, seeing other people’s shows, chatting to friends, when I thought I should have been resting, and I got better. As the month went on, audience members were coming up to me afterwards and sharing their stories. It felt like I was doing the right thing. And by the end of the run, I wasn’t sad doing it anymore.”

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Since then, Robertson has been invited to perform at festivals around the UK and Ireland, is attracting considerable industry interest and is about to film a couple of her shows. Bringing Marj to the Glasgow International Comedy Festival, she’s also performing a work-in-progress of her next Fringe hour, intriguingly titled O – the second part of a proposed trilogy. Each incorporates a folktale, but in a different way, representing the mind (Marj), body (O) and soul (2025’s show, which she's already working on).

I ask if Robertson minds being described as “otherworldly”, as she has by this critic and others. “I love it!” she confirms, before suggesting that she wants to change the way Shetland is thought of.

“Marj was my first show without a single incest joke in it,” she laughs. “The idea that we’re all drunk and related to each other, it’s such a basic view of what a rich culture and wonderful community is there. I want to keep writing different things about home and to show people a different side of it.”

Marjolein Robertson’s show Marj is at The Stand, Glasgow, on 26 March, and her work-in-progress show O is at Drygate Peaks Bar, Glasgow, on 18 March, both as part of Glasgow Comedy Festival, see Robertson also plays the King’s Theatre, Kirkcaldy, on 20 March, Heart of Hawick, Hawick, on 29 March, and The Stand, Glasgow, on 8 April, see