Review by Rosie Holmes
Mike Birbiglia is perhaps not as well known in the UK as he is in the USA. His career has seen him star in Hollywood films, stand in for Jimmy Kimmel, and even feature in a Taylor Swift video. Despite this multitude of appearances, his unique form of one-man shows is what Mike Birbiglia is most recognised for. Already under his belt is a series of autobiographical shows including, Sleepwalk with Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, and after a run on Broadway last winter, Birbiglia’s new show The Old Man & The Pool comes to London for a 4 -week residency at the west end’s Wyndham’s Theatre. After success in the states, would the show make a splash this side of the pond?
Birbiglia creates shows that straddle the art forms of theatre and stand-up comedy. In The Old Man & The Pool,Birbiglia regales the audience with tales of middle-aged health woes. Upon visiting his doctors for his annual check-up he is told the results of his pulmonary breathing test are in, fact, very bad, and his doctor recommends he take up cardio to improve his health. This is the springboard from which the show continues. Birbiglia, he tells us, begins swimming in his local YMCA pool but uses this time in his life to explore with the audience themes of anxiety and mortality. Pretty big topics, but all engagingly discussed by Birbiglia with laugh a minute anecdotes.
While the show tells the tale of Birbiglia’s current health, both physical and mental, the central narrative is often veered away from as Birbiglia deftly intertwines the past and present, often telling stories from his childhood and teenage years. Particularly funny is his regaling of his fIrst visit to the YMCA pool and the harrowing memories of naked old men towel drying themselves and the smell of the place (likened to a child’s unwashed arm cast). In fact, I am pretty sure if there was a handbook, or checklist of the rules of a successful comedy show, Birbiglia would have every point ticked off.
That’s not to say this show appears formulaic by any means, only that Birbiglia has the audience eating out of his hand throughout, clearly having a thorough understanding of his craft. While I have no doubt this show is precisely and tightly scripted, Birbiglia creates an atmosphere in which you feel as if you are just a friend he is having a chat with, and in on his secret jokes. A few times throughout the evening Birbiglia interacts directly with the audience. He welcomes latecomers to the show, gets us to join him in a moment of silence (for whom I won’t say!) and speaks with those in the boxes, or as Birbiglia refers to them, “cubby holes”, a phrase I will continue to use.
What makes this show so impressive is that, for the most part, it really is just a man and a microphone. There are no big effects, or flashy moments, just a really engaging storyteller. Therefore, set design is minimal. However, a large wave-like shape made out of graph paper provides the backdrop to the show. It is a simple but effective design by Beowulf Boritt. Throughout, lighting makes it becomes the pool in which Birbiglia swims, a lit-up tile becomes a hospital bed, and entries from Birbiglia’s journals are projected upon the backdrop.
I think there is always a fear that comedy won’t translate when it comes from one side of the Atlantic to the other (has anyone see the US version of The Inbetweeners?). However, Birbiglia laid those fears to rest pretty early on in his new show, The Old Man and The Pool. He tackles big topics of mortality and health using a trademark style of humour that clearly delighted the audience on the night I saw the show. In a mash-up between stand-up comedy and theatre Mike Birbiglia’s The Man and the Pool is an engaging and truly funny hit of a show.
The Old Man and The Pool plays at Wyndham’s Theatre until 7th October 2023, tickets are available here - https://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk/whats-on/the-old-man-and-the-pool
Photos by Emilio Madrid