Performed by John Burrows and directed by Jennifer Ward-Lealand, A Gambler’s Guide to Dying is a tribute to the powers of story-telling – to inflate, immortalise and inspire.
Written by Gary McNair (who originally performed the solo himself at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival), A Gambler’s Guide to Dying tells the story of a young man and his grandfather, a lifelong gambler and teller of (tall?) tales, who makes a final bet that he will make it to the year 2000 before he dies of pancreatic cancer.
From a technical point of view, the most striking thing about the show is how un-showy it is. It is just a performer standing in the middle of an audience, telling a story. Every element, from Burrows’ performance, to the lighting (by Paul Bennett) and sound (by Paul McLaney) is perfectly in tune, making transitions through time and between characters feel completely seamless. Even the choreography of Burrows’ movements feels specifically designed to match the ebb and flow of the narrator’s relationship with his unstoppable grandfather.
Burrows is terrific as the lead – aware of his grandfather’s faults, and both excited and in awe of the old rascal’s ability to keep himself going through his twin loves of gambling and re-telling the stories of his life. While the snatches we get of his grandfather provide some of the show’s best comedic moments, Burrows’ embodiment of the young boy, and the man he becomes, is the emotional spine of the show. This material could have come across as overly saccharine or silly, but Ward-Lealand and Burrows’ warm, empathetic handle on the play’s key relationship gives scenes – particularly the narrator’s one-sided argument with his grandfather towards the end – a real sense of weight. You forget you are watching a man talking to an empty stage.
A little gem of a show, A Gambler’s Guide to Dying is a great example of a good story well-told.
A Gambler’s Guide to Dying is presented by Burrowed Time and plays at The Basement until 23 June.