Chichester Festival Theatre
Noël Coward Theatre
James Graham has built a phenomenal reputation on the back of a series of plays that are primarily valued for their entertainment value but significantly also his social and political commentary, which speaks to a wide range of theatregoers.
Those who have followed his career closely may also have noticed a penchant for popular entertainment and that aspect comes to the fore in this play, which started life at Chichester Festival Theatre last year.
Quiz takes as its subject the scandal that arose when, egged on by a wife who could occasionally sound like a watered-down modern version of Lady Macbeth, British Army Major Charles Ingram wanted to be and became a millionaire, courtesy of a popular ITV reality TV series.
After a typically cringe-making warm-up man has strutted his tawdry stuff, the audience, who collectively form an integral part of the evening, are introduced to Charles and Diana Ingram and her brother Adrian Pollock. While Charles, played by Gavin Spokes, was at surface level a dull, dim but decent military type, the siblings, respectively portrayed by Stephanie Street and Henry Pettigrew, were pub quiz addicts who became worryingly fixated on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
Context is provided by a brief comical history of TV quiz shows and also a view of Greg Haiste’s Paul Smith, the man who created a series, which became a licence to print money in no fewer than 160 countries.
Where Graham and director Daniel Evans are clever is in manipulating their audience, deliberately mimicking the producers of the show. This is best exemplified in the voting process whereby members of the paying public are asked to determine the guilt or otherwise of the Ingrams (plus geeky Welsh assistant Tecwen Whittock), first at the interval and then the end.
A high profile but somewhat frivolous court case followed after the major was accused of fraud in his attempt to collect the £1 million prize for answering 15 questions correctly. The crux of the case was whether selective audience coughs while Chris Tarrant was catechising the man enjoying his 15 minutes of fame were completely random or specifically programmed to assist him to answer fiendishly difficult questions.
Without wishing to give the game away, the results are significantly different, aided by the efforts of Sarah Woodward's defence counsel, but also the presentation of evidence. The court convicted but much of the evidence seems flimsy, certainly as presented by James Graham on stage 17 years after the show that created such frenzied tabloid controversy.
Although the bulk of the 2½ hours are taken up with ITV-style "light entertainment", primarily a highly realistic rehash of the fateful show, some more thought-provoking musings appear along the way. These largely centre on the way in which the public allows itself to be manipulated and also fleeced by the media, together with a somewhat wry but possibly accurate metatheatrical assessment of the evening’s underlying material, which is just as ephemeral as the most popular quiz show in history. The play can also be seen as another unashamed James Graham celebration of English eccentricity, although, on this occasion, of a kind that was subsequently exported across the globe.
Fans of the genre will love the colourful game show elements and also Keir Charles’s portrayal of the larger-than-life TV personality who was an integral component of the show’s success, presenter Chris Tarrant. Those who have never got the point of reality TV might enjoy the experience but wonder what all the fuss was about.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher