Tim Hochstrasser reviews The Old Man and the Pool now playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London.
The Old Man and the Pool
Mike Birbiglia is a Boston-based actor and stand-up comedian who is in residence for the next few weeks at that little jewel-box of a West End theatre – Wyndhams. If you are choosing a theatre rather than a cabaret setting for a one-man act, then this is certainly a good one to select. It is cosy and intimate and there is no need to project or to amplify excessively. Also the performer can interact with the audience meaningfully, as Birbiglia did in the later sections of his presentation, even talking one-to-one with a lady in one of the boxes. The humour has a gentle, confiding quality therefore ultimately reassuring even when the themes are, as in this case, quite dark and uneasy, focused on middle age, health worries and mortality.
Birbiglia combines a homespun, warm tone of delivery with deft, verbal precision. There is no politics, thank goodness, and instead much of the humour is directed against himself or around acute, wry observations of the social and professional worlds in which he moves. We start with him at a medical check-up where he cannot blow sufficiently into a tube and the doctor suspects a heart attack is in the offing. After multiple medical encounters he resolves to get fitter by swimming in a YMCA pool, which leads him to reminisce extensively about childhood experiences in a similar pool that had put him off swimming altogether until now.
From that point on the show opens out into a broader field of family memory, the challenges of making a will, changing diet, and learning to savour living in the moment with his wife and daughter – much the same life lessons in fact as the new musical ‘The Little Big Things’ is proclaiming a few blocks away in Soho.
The set is simply a curled representation of the shimmer of a tiled swimming pool, which morphs into graph paper too at one point. Apart from that the visuals are restricted to a stool and the actor’s own shape-shifting, together with some subtle light changes as the mood shifts. The storytelling appears artfully naturalistic and spontaneous but in fact is highly and necessarily scripted.
The show was very well received by an audience with a large American contingent, clearly well-versed in and admiring of the comedian’s work. The social observation is neat and the puncturing of pretension and foibles (whether his own or others’) is gently rather than cruelly done, This is always welcome in a time where vindictive exclusive humour comes cheap and ruthless denigration is everywhere. But to this British reviewer at least it seemed as though the goal of each segment hove into view early on so that there was little strategic surprise; and many of the themes and stories overlapped or scored similar points with the audience with diminishing returns.
Perhaps it is simply the age-old issue that we are often divided by a common language so that quite a lot is lost in translation. To me many of the comic situations were accessible and legible, but their goal was well in sight long before it was reached. The tone of wry self-mockery did not vary enough in tone or content to sustain a full evening, and it is perhaps revealing that the last segment of the show fell back on that old and reliable device of trying to get an audience to feel guilty and stop laughing at an absurd situation that revolved around death. Here there was a suddenly a lot more energy even as the subject matter thinned out.
In such troubled and fretful times, Birbiglia’s take on ultimate themes is refreshingly offbeat and diverting, but I did not find it as funny as the crowd around me, who seemed to see hysterical humour in anecdotes that for me were simply well-turned observations without any very clear conclusions, shape or direction.
Runs at Wyndham’s Theatre until 7 October.