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Hannah Walker first noticed her partner liked to gamble when they would go to the pub together: he would make a beeline for the fruit machine, while she’d play quizzes and card games on itbox machines. “But he’d stay on the fruit machine a lot longer, and I’d leave the itbox to continue my glass of wine,” she recalls. She thought nothing of it at the time. Just like her enthusiasm for a few glasses of wine, she saw casual gambling as a vice, but one that was fun and easily managed.
Over the next few years, though, unexplained money troubles became an increasing feature of the couple’s life together. Walker’s partner was constantly glued to his phone, until one day in 2017 he left it at home by accident. “I knew something wasn’t right, so I logged in, and discovered that so much money had been going into online gambling.” Her initial reaction was shock, but also shame. “I didn’t want to tell family and friends about it because my partner is the most wonderful man in the world ever, but I knew they would judge him for it.”
Like many partners of gambling addicts, Walker was perplexed by the gulf between how she perceived her partner – kind, caring, responsible – and how addicts are typically portrayed: as people who are out of control, and who don’t follow the advice of one discontinued industry-funded slogan, “When the fun stops, stop”.
As a performance artist, Walker’s remedy was to turn her experience into a piece of multimedia theatre, drawing on hours of interviews with addicts, their partners and clinical experts to help her understand how someone she so admired could be drawn into an expensive compulsion. What she took away from those conversations is the central message underpinning her new show, Gamble: “I’ve learned that gambling addiction has nothing to do with someone’s character.”
Opening at the Northern Stage theatre in Walker’s home town of Newcastle upon Tyne on 19 May, Gamble focuses on how websites use manipulative techniques to lure people in. Using video, lights and music, Walker creates a sinister, DayGlo dreamscape evoking the flashy colours of sites that promise punters harmless fun. Walker, dressed in a suit covered in dollar bills, casts herself as an industry gatekeeper. “We love looking after our new customers,” she purrs while offering “free bet” promotions, which is where many addictions start.
For much of the show, Walker’s co-creator, Rosa Postlethwaite, sits silently on a sofa turned away from the audience. A projection shows her compulsively gambling on her phone, reflecting how online platforms have made addiction a solitary, 24/7 experience.
Gamble’s main plot line is autobiographical, charting Walker’s experience with her partner, from the moment of discovery – “I want my £100,000 back!” she shouts – to the process of coming to terms with her partner’s condition. She describes how although he leaves Gamblers Anonymous meetings feeling proud of his progress, she feels awful, anxious about the money that’s been spent and uncertain how to deal with her own feelings.
She and her character are not alone in that regard. Walker learned that many addicts and the people close to them are crying out for a space to share experiences. Unlike alcohol and drug addiction, which are better understood, there are far fewer support groups available.
“There is such a stigma around addiction, and I don’t know why that is, but all I know is that the more I talk about the fact my partner has gambled, the more people talk to me about their experience, and share that a family member or someone they know has gambled,” she says.
Every performance of Gamble will be followed by a Q&A with Matthew Gaskell, a psychologist, gambling expert and clinical lead on addiction for the NHS Northern Gambling Service. Walker is also organising coffee and cake mornings for people to exchange stories. She and Gaskell believe that the shame associated with addiction is a deliberate strategy employed by gambling firms to distance themselves from its harms, and shift the burden of responsibility on to individual players so as not to jeopardise the industry’s £5.9bn annual profits.
“They’re conveying the message that addiction ‘has nothing to do with us: you’re the one with the problem, you need to take responsibility and control yourself’. It’s no accident that they employ those tactics,” Gaskell says. “What’s been handed down to us through the years is the idea that addiction is a moral failing, a weakness of will. Even though this is undermined by science, it pervades the public discourse. This is compounded for gambling because less is known about it; it’s portrayed as everyday, harm-free, fun entertainment.”
According to Gaskell, just 2 to 3% of people with a gambling addiction come forward for support. His patients say this is because they have no idea it is a health problem akin to drug or alcohol addiction. This is partly due to the increased societal acceptability of gambling, so it’s not seen as a problem, but also a lack of public health messaging showing people how to get help.
Gaskell thinks this is because the government is in thrall to the gambling industry, labelling it a leisure pursuit and placing it under the control of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport rather than the Department for Health and Social Care, which would shift the emphasis towards harm reduction. Public health messaging is typically funded by the gambling industry, leaving the public “ignorant to its dangers and harms”, he says.
This, says Gaskell, is in keeping with a culture shift that has taken place in recent years, and which he attributes to how online platforms have reinvented gambling’s image. “When I was growing up, gambling was seedy, behind frosted glass, something middle-aged men did with the Racing Post under their arm. It certainly wasn’t something young football supporters did; it’s changed – they’ve hijacked youth culture and made it a cool thing.”
He sees irony in the resistance to supercasinos in the 2000s, which were halted following a public outcry. “Fast forward a few years and everyone’s got a supercasino in their pocket … Rapid, continuous forms of gambling are where the harm is,” he explains. This is because slow-moving events – buying a national lottery ticket, for example – are less likely to push people into a “hot state” in which they lose control and continue to bet, even though they’re losing money.
Walker’s play coincides with a pivotal moment for the industry. This month, the government is expected to publish a long-awaited white paper on gambling, which addiction experts hope will introduce stronger regulation of the online market, including curbs on advertising and affordability checks, as well as preventing the industry from funding research and public health messaging, as big tobacco did in the past. “The whole thing almost needs to be ripped up and started again,” says Gaskell. “The harm is so severe and pervasive, the previous laws just aren’t fit for purpose.”
The power of Walker’s show lies in her own emotional journey. “When I first found out [my partner was gambling], I was shocked, and in my head I was like: ‘If this ever happens again, I’m gone, I’ve got a baby.’ But when my partner relapsed it was so different, my emotional state in that moment. I felt: ‘OK, that’s happened, but the way you feel now must be so shit and so low that I completely empathise with you, and we will get through this.’
“I think if I hadn’t began making the show, or doing any of the research, we potentially wouldn’t be together.”