Stephen Carlin: Gambling Man

In his new Fringe show, Stephen Carlin sheds light on a unique problem that comes out of gambling addiction; while most addicts can feasibly avoid their choice drug for evermore, gambling addicts have to live in a world that is built upon the very principle of risk. Whether it’s asking out a girl you like, or taking a chance on an investment, or even driving a car, life is a gamble.

Carlin conveys this sense of unavoidable risk – and for him, opportunities for compulsive behaviour – by drawing on experiences throughout his life. Indeed, there were some thoroughly charming moments, such as his recollection of his first ‘tipping point’: having chowed down three packets of fudge in a row, Carlin thought it a great idea to hide the evidence in his dad’s toolbox. Clearly from the start, he had a problem. Significantly, for the first time in his life Carlin realised that the words, ‘I’m an addict’, could get him out of some (literally) sticky situations.

However, this justification tactic was for me a little dicey considering the serious nature of addiction. It is clear that Carlin’s shtick is thinly veiled ignorance with an underlying hint of subversion; the notion that Amy Winehouse’s premature death was ‘cool’ was clearly not intended to be taken seriously. However, the way in which Carlin hammered home the 27 phenomenon (Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix etc), verged on crass. Furthermore, his assertion that he’ll never make a bedroom poster on account of his failure to die of an overdose failed to deliver the dark message it deserved.

While Carlin illustrated the epidemic of addiction that infects contemporary culture in a unique and engaging way, his meandering ultimately came off as avoidance of his own personal experiences with gambling. Indeed, the heart of the story was clouded over with worn-out jokes poking fun at women, the Irish and inebriated Alzheimer’s patients.

The section of the show in which Carlin explored the principles of probability – assisted by an engineering degree no less – was the saving grace. However, his assertion that Nate Silver, who correctly predicted the US presidential election down to every state, proves that it is possible for someone to ‘win’ at gambling, was somewhat of an alarm bell. Indeed, Carlin’s only vaguely ironic suggestion that he is just not very good at gambling was a bit of a cop-out. Having said that, his awareness of the interconnection of class and risk was both funny and astute, and truly made me reassess the meaning of the national lottery. Stephen Carlin is a practiced performer and brainy to boot, but in this case I left wishing he spent more time on the heart of the story: his own.

Reviews by Emma Banks

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National Theatre

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The Blurb

Only losers get a job and work for a living. The clever people hang about in smoked-filled betting shops, chewing small pens and playing the odds. What could possibly go wrong? ***** (Herald).