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I took a punt and went to see 'Gamble'. Did it pay off?
Jon Bryan reviews a play about gambling and addiction

Jon Bryan next to Gamble poster
I wasn't sure whether I was going to enjoy Gamble, a play I caught at the Northern Stage in Newcastle last week. Described in the promotional literature as a 'glittering, glamorous peek into the spectacular world of online gambling' and a show about 'addiction and its effects on families, friendships and communities', I prepared myself for a performance with a message that I might not agree with.

But it wasn't like that. I enjoyed it. Gamble is a short play with a small cast, well-used multimedia effects and integrated BSL interpretation, which tells the personal story of the main actor and writer, Hannah Walker. Walker has experienced first-hand what it is like to have a partner with a gambling addiction, playing games online via a smartphone. This is a personal story about a family who have been very much impacted by gambling and addiction - and lost a lot of money.

The play covers the fall into addiction of a gambler and the struggle of how he (and those around him) deal with it. It describes how there were no obvious signs about what was going on and how the problem remained hidden for some time. It deals with issues of trust and openness, and how a family can come together to support someone struggling with such an addiction.

How the pandemic affected the family is also part of the story. The social isolation of lockdown caused a relapse, which impacted their ability to move forward with what was occurring in their lives. How all of this intersected with the arrival of a baby and the difficulties which ensued are portrayed quite graphically at times, but also with some well-placed dark humour.

There are aspects of the narration which present a particular view about online gambling, which I do not share. There is also a characterisation of the gambling industry which I would describe as one-sided, but does provide a context for the very personal story being told.

As a story of a family struggling with a gambling addiction and all that such a problem entails, it is well told. There are some clever aspects to the play which illustrate particular points very well. Highlighting the idiotic and grandiose language used in what we might refer to as 'the small print' (or a 'user agreement') which can effectively absolve everyone except the individual, is particularly well done in the style of a humorous monologue. All too easily we simply click "I agree" or "Accept" on a webpage, without taking note of what we are signing up to.

As someone who knows very well the narratives surrounding gambling, gambling harm, and the government's ongoing review of the 2005 Gambling Act, I know and understand the context of the play. I do wonder what someone who is less familiar with the subject might think of it.

The play ran for three nights, with a conversation at the end of each play. This offered a chance for questions and comments to the writer/co-creator/lead actor, Hannah Walker, as well as Dr Matthew Gaskell, clinical lead and consultant psychologist from the NHS Northern Gambling Service.

While I think the play works very well telling the real-life story of a family from the north-east and how online gambling had impacted on them, the discussion led by Dr Gaskell invited us to conclude that such an example is more common than it is. He made clear his views on the causes of these problems, which he lays largely at the feet of a government he alleges takes a dim view of regulation and an industry he feels is out of control. Not views that I share.

Dr Gaskell spoke and explained his role, but largely concentrated on how he sees gambling and the gambling industry, and what he thinks needs to be done by legislators. The negative descriptors he used in relation to the industry made it clear what he thought of gambling companies. This is one framework for discussing and understanding the issues surrounding the play, but there are others. How you view gambling may well impact on what you take from the play and what conclusions you might then come to.

I feel that the story emphasises the importance of speaking openly about the problems that can happen with gambling and addiction, and the need to tackle stigma. I contributed to the discussion saying that I wasn't sure that this chimes with some of the current calls (including those from Dr Gaskell) for gambling to be 'de-normalised', restricted from being advertised, and hidden more from public view.

I also think that the story shows the importance of others close to those affected doing what they can to help, understand, and take steps to tackle a gambling addiction. The emphasis of doing what you can as individuals and a community in this situation was notably under-emphasised in the discussion afterwards. The focus on 'individual responsibility' by both the government and the gambling industry was seen by some as problematic, which is often a driver for those who wish to see extensive reform of the gambling laws and some of our freedoms curtailed. I've never thought that the answer to gambling addiction is to curtail and restrict what we can and can't do, which I have written about previously here: Gambling with adult freedom.

Overall, I enjoyed the play, and I would encourage others to see it if they have the opportunity. But I would also want to recommend looking widely at different perspectives of gambling as there are many stories to be told. As I said in the after-play discussion: "I have gambled all of my adult life and will do for many years to come. I enjoy it. It has certainly cost me money, and I don't know any gambler who expects otherwise."

For anyone wanting to read more about my experience of gambling, earlier this year I wrote about how gambling can be enjoyable: Gambling can be fun - deal with it!

Jon Bryan is treasurer of The Great Debate and regularly writes about gambling. He is a poker player and tweets at @JonBryanPoker.

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