Paul T Davies reviews Quiz by James Graham currently playing at the Noel Coward Theatre.
Noel Coward Theatre|
11 April 2018
Playwright of the moment James Graham, fresh from his Olivier award win on Sunday for Labour of Love, sees his third production in less than a year open in the West End. This time, the very British affair of the “coughing major” scandal on the quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, is the focus of his analysis, in which Major Charles Ingram was accused in 2001 of cheating his way to the million pound prize, assisted by his wife, Diana, and fellow quiz obsessive Tecwen Whittock. On the surface, the play is about the scandal and trial involving one of the most popular and successful TV shows of the time, but Graham has, once again, captured pivotal moments in British society. This was the dawn of what we now call reality TV, or structured reality, and I was struck by the comment that, apart from the news, the only way “ordinary” people could get on television prior this was via quiz shows. Who Wants to be a Millionaire played on the psychological drama of lives changing in front of the viewer, of decisions being made that could make or lose a fortune, with sound and close ups editing the drama.
Played on Robert Jones’s superb design, the trial is presented in the format of the quiz show, act one being the case for the prosecution, act two for the defence. The show works best as an ensemble, but Sarah Woodward is excellent as Sonia Woodley QC, and Keir Charles is remarkable as a range of quiz show hosts, including Jim Bowen and Des O’Connor, and hilarious as Chris Tarrant, giving enough facial mannerisms and vocal inflections to throw us back in nostalgia. Gavin Spokes does well as Charles Ingram, but we get little more than a bumbling buffoon, and wonder how on they thought they could get away with it. But where they guilty? Fascinatingly the audience get to use key pads to vote at the interval on whether the accused are guilty. A majority felt they were, yet the second half offers new perspectives to scenes witnessed, and the audience vote again at the end- with fascinating results!
The play takes a while to find its pulse, and the Pub Quiz involving the whole audience might have worked better in a smaller auditorium, and feels like a massive distraction from the main event, (especially when the strangers either side of you refuse to play, but critics are a strange breed). This being a James Graham play, the Labour Party does feature, and some of points feel shoe horned into the show. However, the play is fascinating in revealing how Millionaire was skewered to favour the middle class, and ,as a result, contestants in the early years were mainly white, middle class, quite boring men, people with money playing for more money. (Judith Keppel, the first million pound winner, and now an Egghead, has aristocratic connections.) And Graham is strong on how reality is now structured and can offer ‘alternative facts’, and here the play is dynamite. Initially, I felt the Ingrams were sketched too thinly, but unpacking the play afterwards, I began to feel that that was Graham’s point- we are offered an edited, structured version of characters that manipulate our responses.
Whilst the play doesn’t quite reach the giddy brilliance of Labour of Love, this is a hugely entertaining evening in the theatre, full of comedy and thought, and confirms James Graham as a major playwright of our time.