The Old Man and the Pool – Wyndham’s Theatre, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: Mike Birbiglia

Director: Seth Barrish

Occupying a fertile territory that lies somewhere between a play in monologue form and a stand-up routine, the theatre of comic storytelling opens up endless possibilities. Perhaps Daniel Kitson is the United Kingdom’s best-known current practitioner of the art, but now we get a rare chance to enjoy the work of Broadway’s near-equivalent, Mike Birbiglia, for a short run in the heart of London’s West End. “Here for a good time, not a long time,” the publicity tells us.

Birbiglia’s show is not, as the title suggests, a downsized version of an Ernest Hemingway novel, rather it is a heartfelt and hilarious account of crossing the threshold into middle age. in 2017, the storyteller, an angst-ridden New Yorker, recalls reaching the age of 40, going for a routine medical check-up and being diagnosed as in very, very bad shape. His grandfather and father had both suffered heart attacks when 56 and he had already made plans to take a year out when reaching that age.

Averse to any form of physical exercise and dietary restraint, our hero rejects suggestions of daily press-ups and joining a wrestling club, so the doctor urges him to learn to swim. However, he is haunted by a childhood experience and the vision of a wrinkly old man at the pool. Despite this, he heads for the nearest YMCA, slips into his “speedless” and takes the plunge.

The main narrative gives structure to the show, but it is often less important than the digressions, of which there are many. Almost certainly, everything is scripted rigidly, but Birbiglia is supremely gifted at making it look improvised as he develops a rapport with the audience and chastens a latecomer (a plant perhaps?) cruelly. He is also adept at mixing in brief moments of pathos and then springing back to comedy in a flash. Standing alone or sitting on a high stool, the actor/comedian needs no props or sets to tell his story. This is theatre at its purest and arguably its most effective.

Birbiglia smashes to pieces the theory that neither humour nor humor can survive Transatlantic crossings. In a blissful 80 minutes, he delves into his character’s deepest anxieties, thereby making us contemplate our own mortality and then laugh out loud at it. He delivers a good time for sure and, hopefully, he will stay for longer next time.

Runs until 7 October 2023

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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