‘Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man and the Pool’ review – mortality has never been so funny

Read our five-star review of Mike Birbiglia’s endearing slice-of-life comedy show "The Old Man and the Pool,” running at Wyndham’s Theatre through 7 October.

Suzy Evans
Suzy Evans

A few things in Mike Birbiglia’s The Old Man and the Pool might not translate for London audiences. His 85-minute one-man comedy show comes to Wyndham’s Theatre straight from Broadway – with a brief stopover at the Edinburgh Fringe – but the universal truth at the centre translates no matter where you are. Ageing is scary. The future is unknown. So you might as well dive in and swim.

While that might not sound like a night full of laughs, Birbiglia’s signature style blends observational comedy, storytelling, and life’s big questions. Birbiglia famously draws from his own experiences to create theatrical capsules from his rare sleepwalking disorder in Sleepwalk With Me to becoming a parent in The New One about becoming a parent to his mortality in The Old Man and the Old Pool.

The central action begins when Birbiglia blows into a breathing apparatus at the doctor, and his diagnosis is “heart attack.” Essentially, his lung capacity is that of someone entering cardiac arrest, so his doctor encourages him to exercise five days a week. This leads him somewhat unwillingly to a daily ritual at the local community pool, where he starts swimming lessons.

As Birbiglia floats in and out of the water, so to speak, on Beowulf Borrit’s wave-shaped stage with Aaron Copp’s flowy lighting, he reflects on what brought him to this point and what he wants to live for. Whether he’s remarking on the grammar of the pool’s signs (Does “Slippery when wet” need the “when wet” bit?), the chlorine smell (like when someone lets you sniff under their cast), or the rampant nudity in the men’s locker room, he draws everything back to his own life, keeping the audience in fits of laughter and tears along the way.

However, it’s the moments when he lays down on the stage as if he’s reading to his daughter Oona, that create the piece's beating heart. He recalls how his father and grandfather had heart attacks at age 56, so he anticipates that being a pretty “big year” for him. But then he writes in his journal a line that’s reflected on the stage: When I’m 56, Oona will be 19.

Birbiglia is creating something of an autobiographical life chronology with his work, and one can only hope that when he’s 56 (and hopefully many times before that), he comes up with another piece – emotional, funny, heartwarming, and everything in between. After all, isn’t that a little bit like life?

*Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man and the Pool is running at Wyndham’s Theatre through 7 October. Book Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man and the Pool tickets on London Theatre today. *

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Photo credit: Mike Birbiglia in The Old Man and the Pool (Photo by Emilio Madrid)

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