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Stephanie Street interview - 'James Graham has a skill for turning the specific into the universal'
This spring, James Graham is back in the West End following up his successes of last year – Ink and Labour of Love – with Quiz, his investigation into the Charles Ingram cheating scandal currently previewing at the Noel Coward Theatre.
Back in 2003, Ingram was dubbed the ‘Coughing Major’ after he was accused of cheating his way to the top prize on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire by colluding with his wife and a fellow contestant. Graham’s play, which premiered at Chichester Festival Theatre, retells the story and examines the court case and scandal that followed.
Stephanie Street plays Charles’ wife Diana, who watched on in despair as her husband sat in the hot seat opposite Chris Tarrant.
The play was first seen in Chichester last year to a great reception, how has it been preparing the show for the West End?
The play’s really been sharpened up and tightened, and we’re doing some new things as well as rediscovering what we did in Chichester.
Is it going to be noticeably different for someone who saw the show last year?
There are some new narrative corners. The show has obviously expanded by taking it from the Minerva into a pros-arch space, and essentially tripled the audience capacity. We’re thinking about how the show fills that bigger space. It was audacious and bold in the Minerva, and it’s not about just turning the volume up. It’s figuring out how to fill the different space.
While the play centres on the Millionaire scandal, it is also a bit of a love letter to the British gameshow…
It’s a really loving immersion in the history of light entertainment. The audience are very much involved in taking us through what Millionaire was a consequence of. The introduction of ITV and the commercialisation of TV brought a populist imperative to telly, and that’s what the big scenes of the play look at.
Like any play he writes, it is clear James Graham has done a huge amount of research into the subject. Have you had to brush up on your TV knowledge too?
My big challenge was that I didn’t grow up here, I grew up in Singapore. There are all sorts of cultural references in the play, and the cultural influences I had growing up were all American. I had to do a lot of watching grainy old telly as research, but there’s a lot of knowledge that’s in our collective conscience. James’ real skill as a writer is that he turns the specific into the universal so brilliantly.
The production featured some audience participation in the Minerva, have you managed to keep those elements for the West End?
We have, it’s really vital. James and Dan [Evans, director] have an eye for the complicity of a piece of theatre. It’s not a case of just ‘putting on’ a piece, it’s very much a shared experience. Those elements are so integral to the play and the production. It’s really joyous, it isn’t onerous at all.
The scandal was a big deal at the time, a lot of people know (or think they know) the outcome. How do you keep those aspects of the story suspenseful?
What’s brilliant is that this play makes us think about what we’re presented with when we’re presented with truths. More people watched the documentary than watched Princess Diana’s funeral, which is extraordinary. I didn’t see the programme, but I did osmose a lot of information about the story; he’s called the ‘Coughing Major’ even though it wasn’t him coughing. The play is based on a great book called Bad Show by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett, and what that is, is an account of the ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’ that were presented both in public and in court, but it looks at them forensically.
There’s a lot of footage of the actual events of the episode. Are you simply recreating those moments?
It’s been about re-watching her in the chair on the show. There’s a particular energy about her that you extrapolate out to all the elements James has imagined in the play. You feel a sense of responsibility when you play someone who’s walking around in the real world.
Do you know if they came in to see the show in Chichester?
There were a couple of nights when other people in the play – not Charles and Diana – were in the audience. Charles and Diana lived under a level of public scrutiny I wouldn’t even have nightmares about. I feel like everybody’s intention in making this play has been very benevolent. There’s a real rigour to the way we’ve gone about this, and a positive purpose.
Quiz Tickets are available now.
Photos courtesy Johan Persson