James Graham has a reputation for turning big, meaty topics into pieces of riveting theatre. In the last 12 months alone, he has tackled the formation of The Sun and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in Ink, told a 30 year history of the Labour party from a single constituency office in Labour of Love, and This House, his play about the 1974 General Election, is currently touring the UK. He takes the seemingly mundane, and creates powerfully entertaining plays.
In Quiz, not only has he shed light on one of the biggest scandals in British television history, but he’s also chronicled the nation’s love-in with light entertainment in the process.
Charles Ingram, an army major, was put on trial when he was accused of cheating his way to the top prize on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? in 2001. Alarm bells started ringing for the producers when a man who barely scraped his way to £4,000 on his first appearance was all of a sudden in the hot seat to win £1million. He did it with the help of two accomplices, his wife and a fellow contestant, who were accused of coughing to indicate the correct answer.
I say they were accused, but they were in fact found guilty, but in Quiz, that’s rather beside the point. Graham presents the case for the prosecution in the first act – every cough is re-enacted verbatim, with lawyers on hand to take us through the case - and then we’re given case for the defence in the second. Though the case took place in 2003 and most of us will have made up our minds about this very public trial then, Graham’s able to make us double-take on those events by adding layers of context and details only a playwright who undertakes such robust research could pull off.
There is no final answer here, though. Despite telling you they were found guilty by a jury, he literally places the power in the audiences hands, arming them with keypads to vote with and decide whether you would find the Ingrams guilty or not. The results - for the performance I attended at least - prove Graham’s ability to see the bigger picture, convincing the audience that what they thought was the truth 15 years ago, may not have been what it seemed.
That’s not the only audience interactivity. There’s a cringe-inducing - yet accurate - TV warm-up man at the top of each half, and during a flick-through the history of gameshows like Take Your Pick and Bullseye, members of the audience are called up to play along (including yours truly, who made his West End debut with an abysmal attempt at guessing the cost of a vacuum on The Price is Right).
Perhaps the acting is best left to the professionals, and Kier Charles and Gavin Spokes are tremendous as Millionaire host Chris Tarrant and Major Charles. They’ve clearly studied the episode in question for hours to create near-perfect impressions of the event. Charles especially is comically uncanny as Tarrant, and also tries his hand at a host of different gameshow hosts throughout the play… as well as Craig David.
The show covers a vast subject, but the production does make it feel a bit stodgy. There’s lots to take in, and there are certainly some scenes that could do with trimming: the questionable choreography (coughreography?) during a dance highlighting the public's ridicule of the couple; a pointless flashback to the Ingrams’ engagement; in-depth analysis about the syndicates surrounding the show. Both Graham and director Dan Evans could trim the fat here, and they would be left with a more rounded product.
There’s no question it’s an engaging courtroom drama, and while there is plenty of room for humour and fun (you wouldn’t expect anything less from a man with Graham’s wit), I wish the play would take itself a bit more seriously.
Quiz Tickets are available now.