Actor-author Gary McNair recounts his granddad’s excitement at winning a big bet on the 1966 World Cup, and a lifelong quest to recreate the thrill.

Having recently seen Benjamin Evett’s masterful telling of a story in a  at 59E59 — Albatross, inspired by Coleridge’s long poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” — I was keen to see Gary McNair tell his story in a one-person show, A Gambler’s Guide To Dying.  McNair is a writer and performer who comes to us from Glasgow.

Gary McNair in A Gambler's Guide to Dying. Photo: Benjamin Cowie

Gary McNair in A Gambler’s Guide to Dying. Photo: Benjamin Cowie

In 1966, against the odds, England won the eighth football (“soccer”) World Cup playing against West Germany – the only time England has won the Cup to this day.   In Britain, the largest number of  TV viewers up to that time watched the match, over 32 million — even today that’s quite a number.  At the start of A Gambler’s Guide To Dying, Gary McNair as Granddad recreates the excitement he and everyone else had of watching that win in a pub– and not only that, Granddad won big!  He had bet on Britain and he made a fortune!

Granddad, we learn, had told and retold this story to the Narrator as Boy many times – it was a favorite event for both of them, and he never told it quite the same way twice.  From the point of view of the grandson, Granddad could be seen in many ways:  “To some he was dad, to some he was mate, to others he was liar, cheat, addict, hero, story teller.”  Granddad did alter his stories with each telling,  and he told tall-tales:  this may have made him a “liar,” but he was certainly an addict.  He never got over the thrill of that first big win – and kept looking for it the rest of his life, starting with his winnings from that 1966 World Cup, which he soon bet and lost.  Not surprisingly, throughout his life, he never had much money. Nevertheless he kept betting to the very end, placing bets as a sick old man on how long he’d stay alive.  Now here’s a question:  Will the desire to win your bet keep you alive longer?  You can see the show to find out.

Gary McNair with quite a pile of gambling chits. A Gambler's Guide To Dying at 59E59 Theaters. Photo Bemjamin Cowie.

Gary McNair with quite a pile of Granddad’s gambling chits. Photo Bemjamin Cowie.

McNair takes on many voices, some brief as an exclamation, others fully developed, such as the voice of Granddad, and that of  his grandson as a boy and a grown man.  He also brings athletic vigor to the part, leaping on boxes, climbing a step-ladder backward (I worried for his safety on that one), and generally seeking with a variety of voices and movements to animate the story and bring its characters to life.

I appreciated McNair’s range and energy, and the passion with which he wanted to tell the story and wanted us as viewers to fully appreciate the novelty and wonder he saw in the granddad.  Still, Granddad did not turn out to be an interesting enough character to carry the show.  Once you catch on that win or lose granddad will keep betting, and that even if he wins a bet, he’ll reinvest the winnings in another bet, there isn’t much suspense.  Granddad didn’t seem endearing as the grandson finds him, more on the annoying and foolish side, so the grandson’s belief that granddad was a “great man” comes across as a strained attempt to end on a high note.

A Gambler’s Guide To Dying plays at 59E59 Theaters in mid-Manhattan through April 23, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

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