How can the 1966 World Cup, cancer, and gambling addiction combine to create a coherent 70-minute one-man play?
It sounds improbable but this is what Gary McNair pulls off in A Gambler’s Guide to Dying.
It’s instantly clear why the play was such a runaway success at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe: it cleverly combines the wealth of human emotions that are necessary for mass appeal. It’s impossible not to love and connect with McNair’s characters.
Through the age-old medium of storytelling, McNair brings us the inimitable character of Archie: the man who aged 66 bet his life’s savings on beating cancer to see the millennium.
But as the narrator tells us, he is much more than that. The play is in many ways about the versatile nature of memory: “To some he was dad, to some he was mate, to others he was liar, cheat, addict, hero, story teller.”
It is the latter that is charms the audience throughout the play. McNair captures perfectly the style and manner of story telling in the older generations.
It is clear that Archie’s stories have been wildly elaborated over the years – we don’t truly believe that he fell into the Clyde and came out with a salmon in his mouth – but that is much of the attraction.
McNair is careful too, to avoid falling into the clichéd category of ‘feel-good’ drama: the play walks a beautifully tight line between comedy and tragedy as the audience both wills Archie to beat the impossible odds and acknowledges the destructive nature of his gambling addiction.
It is in this astonishing fluidity of humour and pathos that the play shines, and McNair flits between tone and character with the ease of a master of the monologue.
Director Gareth Nicholls must also take immense credit for this. His staging is beautifully simple but with moments that startle in a way that will stay with the audience for some time to come.
Similarly, Michael John McCarthy’s sound design adds a wonderful underscore to McNair’s story, with moments intelligent moments of commentary from the 1966 final interspersed with the tale.
Ultimately, however, credit must primarily lie with McNair. The title of the play is shrewdly misleading, for Archie’s story tells us far more about how to live than how to die.