All of us gamble in one way or another – with our health, our jobs, our relationships; but some of us make a virtue of it. Gary McNair‘s grandad was one of those people. He may or may not (and your money would have to be on the latter) have won a fortune betting on England to win the World Cup in 1966, but regardless of the truth of it, betting had become a talismanic expression of hope for him, and for the grandson he educated in the art of gambling (with him it was definitely art, not science). Every Saturday the pair ritually placed ambitious football accumulators together. When faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis, placing a bet on living to the year 2000 was the obvious response.
Grandson Gary has inherited his grandad’s talent for the tall story. Here, in this one man show, he presents his grandad’s life as a series of gambles and associated stories, to reflect on the nature of hope, fate and age. Smoothly and pacily performed, it enhances his growing reputation as a theatrical storyteller.
The orange lighting, the patterned carpet, even McNair’s muted garb and elbow patches, all contribute to the nostalgic quality of the piece, without ladling on the sentimentality too strongly. In fact, McNair’s writing is ever-alert to that, and is quick to puncture mawkish or downright tearful moments with wit. The emotional dynamics are perfect; the piece plunges and rises without ever leaving your heart in one place for too long.
Music plays a key role too – unintrusive, yet purposeful. A recurring jazz drumming motif helps the story skip along between defining moments, while more tender music combines movingly with lighting effects when needed.
Existential questions are lightly posed and satisfyingly addressed, without ever attempting a bigger answer than is warranted. Classroom scenes see McNair tussling with a teacher about the two truths of birth and death, and pondering pre-destiny. There’s a young boy learning to be disillusioned here, as well as the old man looking for hope in the places he’s spent a lifetime finding hope.
By the end, we’re left just this side of tearful – cockles warmed, pangs of losses in our own lives felt, without being left flattened by it. McNair has created an affecting piece, from interesting, personal subject matter, that finds something to say about issues we all face; not bad at all.