Theatre Review: A Gambler’s Guide to Dying // Gary McNair

Originally performed at the Traverse Theatre as part of the Made in Scotland Edinburgh Festival Showcase in 2015, Gary McNair’s A Gambler’s Guide to Dying is now presented in short film or ‘theatrical capture’ format. The new adaptation makes use of film techniques to further bring the story to life in a time when live theatre is sadly on pause.

The story is told through the eyes of a Glaswegian boy, whose grandfather (Archie Campbell) won a fortune betting on England in the 1966 World Cup. When Archie is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he bets these winnings on surviving beyond the millennium.

Staying true to its origins on stage, the first scene sees Archie’s grandson standing against a dark backdrop speaking directly to the audience through the fourth wall. McNair pauses to contemplate how to “sum a person up, you know, like, where do you start? With what they looked like? With what they did?” The fantastic script, littered with Scottish slang, creates the sense that Archie’s grandson is working out how best to present the tale specifically for us, and ensures that his audience feels emotionally involved from the start.

A Gambler’s Guide to Dying sells itself as “an intergenerational tale of what we live for and what we leave behind”. Throughout the performance, we are often reminded of this wider meaning behind the piece; perhaps a little excessively at times, creating instances where the story is detracted from as McNair explains what we should take from a scene. 

In most instances, however, the meta elements of the script are subtle, bringing us closer to the grandson’s emotions; as he learns that Archie has cancer, he tells us that the “sunlight fades from the room with impeccable timing, and I’m left with the realisation that the present is always becoming the past”.

The interweaving of film and theatre are most apparent in the scenery. At first stationary, Archie’s house – with its bright yellow wallpaper, mid-century furniture, and the classic three ducks flying across the wall – comes to life as the story’s pace accelerates, used to brilliant effect in the final scene where the family races to the hospital to see if Archie lived into the millennium. We are forced to experience the impatient journey in real time, as the camera pans the Glasgow skyline through a rainy car window, and we run towards hospital doors.

The medium of film enables a clearer distinction between characters, despite the one man cast; Archie sits in a chair in the pub, before we pan to the grandson, sat lower, looking up at him. McNair’s excellent acting underpins the entire show, with subtle voice and visual expression changes ensuring that we soon forget the same actor is playing both characters.

These fully developed characterisations are supported by the excellent and believable dialogue. Archie’s stories from his youth are elaborated with each retelling, and he fondly patronises and exaggerates to his grandson: “When I was your age, a loaf of bread had to last a whole month… and there was fifteen of us!”

McNair’s charismatic physicality, and the filmed scenery, ensures that A Gambler’s Guide to Dying is visually rich and exciting, but the consistently brilliant writing particularly stands out. Despite our abnormal separation from the stage through the camera, the piece retains that special power of live theatre to speak directly to the audience in simple language and banale description, which catches us off guard when it reveals the subtle tragedy in the story it tells.

Words by Lottie Hayton.

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