If you put the stand-up career and the medical records of Mike Birbiglia side by side they’d match pretty perfectly. The storytelling comedian – more at home in theatres like Wyndham’s or the Vivian Beaumont on Broadway than in comedy clubs - has made a living out of almost dying, whether that’s his 2008 show ‘Sleepwalk with Me’, which detailed the sleep disorder that caused him to sleepwalk out of a second storey window, or the bladder cancer he beat when he was just 20.
Now 45, as he settles into middle age the medical complaints are perhaps less interesting – diabetes and cardiac concerns – but in ‘The Old Man & The Pool’, Birbiglia attempts something cleverer than boring us to our own early demises by detailing his every twinge and discharge: he finds a sense of silliness and a sense of profundity and forces them to sit side by side.
It starts with a trip to the doctor, who’s worried about Birbiglia’s breathing and suggests he start swimming. This prompts flashbacks to overchlorinated YMCA pools (with statistics about the amount of urine per litre of water which once heard can’t be forgotten) and locker rooms full of naked old men.
As ostensibly plain as some of his stories are, and faintly familiar as some of these details feel, crucially it never feels like we’re watching yet another middle-aged man tell us about his increasing list of health complaints. Birbiglia is too skilled a storyteller for that. He knows when to undercut with soft self-deprecation, and has a way of delivering - slow, sloth-like, gentle - that makes it impossible not to be rapt even in the midst of the most mundane details.
On top of that he loves to suddenly switch the mood: where he has us laughing at some daft thing one moment – masturbation, the barely latent homoeroticism of Greco-Roman wrestling – he cuts the laughter dead the next with some moving reflection on his young daughter or how unpredictable and short life can be.
Drifting in front of a curved set like the tiled bottom of a swimming pool combined with a tidal wave, Birbiglia deftly takes us through a set that sometimes dives deeply but mostly stays splashing in the middle lane. What he lacks as a swimmer he more than makes up for as a storyteller.