Tim FitzHigham has spent many years investigating – and replaying – the bizarre pastime of making bets for the sake of making bets. This one-man show is his way of sharing the stories of the madness of the history and of the bets themselves. From cheese throwing to Morris dancing, to shearing a sheep and making a naval jacket from the wool in one day – all actual wagers he has found in the records of various 'Gentlemen's Clubs' made by the upper classes (who had too much time on their hands) which he has then set out to recreate and win.
Like the dinner party guest you can rely on to regale you with an anecdote or two, even if it's clear that he's told the stories many times and you quickly feel like you've heard it all before as the repetitive structure becomes a bit thin rather quickly
In The Gambler, he uses PowerPoint style slides, grainy photography and home video-quality film to tell both the history and how he planned and carried out some of these bets himself – involving us in guessing the outcome as to whether he won or lost. It's in his enthusiastic and excited manner of retelling the events of his bets that he is most engaging and amusing – like the dinner party guest you can rely on to regale you with an anecdote or two, even if it's clear that he's told the stories many times and you quickly feel like you've heard it all before as the repetitive structure becomes a bit thin rather quickly. But he highlights the British eccentricity that gives an all-encompassing importance to a shared simple bet that overshadows the frippery and nonsensical nature on which it was based. Playing to our fascination with the bizarre, these well-rehearsed tales amuse with their air of surreality.
FitzHigham has been doing this for at least the last 12 years and has been retelling the stories under different guises for most of this time – on his Radio 4 show, in his book about crossing the Channel in a bathtub and as a stalwart of the Edinburgh Fringe. He's had a great deal of success at the Fringe and you get the sense that is where he – and this show – would feel most comfortable. In fact I lost count of the amount of times he referenced Edinburgh, which seems a bit unnecessary for a touring show which could do with a bit more polish than possibly required in his Scottish 'comfort zone'. The videos he plays us make it clear how far back some of these stories go – ostensibly involving us by looking in on the action as it took place, but as some of them are so dated, they detach us by feeling like old news.
In fact, for all his manner of including us in the narrative by asking us to bet on the outcomes, conversing with the audience (overusing the too-easy "anyone from...", "anyone got kids" and "ladies and gentlemen") and pertaining that we direct the choices of anecdotes for this specific show, how much we actually feel included is questionable. It feels more like a series of presentations that he enjoys doing rather than him being in the moment with confident, original narrative – a wrong slide goes up and he ignores it, the last slide says he will be back "sometime in 2014" and the one-liners outside of the stories err towards simple Christmas Cracker style jokes. It's made all the more uncomfortable when he continually checks the notes written on the back of his hand to get himself back on track... perplexing when he has clearly done this show so many times before – though maybe this is the first time since 2013 if the last slide is anything to go by.
The problem here is that a string of anecdotes without a confident performance or ownership of the holding narrative becomes just that; a string of anecdotes. And as with all anecdotes, some hit, some miss. Add to this that the links are where he seems less comfortable (and a bit confused himself) and I found myself wondering how we had jumped to another tale without any clarity, and unclear as to callbacks he made where I couldn't remember the initial reference. When the stories are funny, they do make you laugh out loud – more because of the strangeness of the task and the work put into making them happen than because of any actual gags. But it's a piece that is confusing and distances us each time he seems distanced. For something that he has been doing for so many years, it feels surprisingly under-rehearsed – perhaps he just knows the tales too well or needs to spend more time on the whole rather than the parts. As it stands, it feels like he expects us to do too much work to find the laughs, being as proud as he is of having spent the time to carry out these silly bets. Plugging his book at the end (after telling us that Clint Eastwood asked for a signed copy) whilst playing the Bond-theme-before-last and showing the slide from his previous tour seemed to expect us to give more to him than he had to us.