Benet Catty Productions

Quiz (WE 2018)

Jun 1, 2018

Noel Coward Theatre

I’m a nut for quizzes. I can spend many an hour watching re-runs of naff 70s and 80s game shows very contentedly. From What’s My Line? to Celebrity Squares, from Bob’s Full House to Blankety Blank, and even the unspeakably silly 3-2-1, TV quizzes have a special place in my heart.

What all the above had in common was that their points weren’t their prizes. The pleasure lay in the demonstration of knowledge or the fluke of luck. Big money was not the interest. And then came Who Wants to be a Millionaire? – perhaps the best quiz show format ever – which premiered in 1998 and ran for 16 years. (It is shortly to be revived, presented by Jeremy Clarkson, a prospect which may make some of us decide we don’t need the money that badly after all.)

Playwright-of-the-time James Graham, whose plays Ink and Labour of Love were West End hits last year, surpasses both with Quiz, a play primarily about the infamous “coughing major” scandal from 2001, in which Major Charles Ingram, his wife and the hilariously-named Tecwen Whittock were caught and convicted for engineering a conspiracy to win the maximum prize of one million pounds.

Act one presents the case for the prosecution, act two the case for the defense. The prosecution case is based almost entirely on ITV’s absolutely must-see documentary “A Major Fraud” from 2003 (viewable on YouTube), in which Martin Bashir interviewed many of the witnesses and played the un-broadcast footage of Ingram’s bizarre progress through the fifteen questions which matches various combinations of coughs provided by Whittock. The case for the defense, at least to my mind, is rather less convincing – suggesting that Ingram was pretending to be an idiot to make the show more entertaining. Mind you, the audience on the night I saw it voted (with their electronic keypads) 50/50.

The play spins along with the aid of a very slick and pacey production by Daniel Evans with a shiny design by Robert Jones complete with multiple video screens and lots of moving lights from Tim Lutkin which suggests the style of the original television programme without turning the show into a TV studio.

The cast is a more mixed bag. Gavin Spokes as Charles Ingram and Greg Haiste as Paul Smith (Millionaire’s creator) both uncannily capture the voices and personalities of their real-life counterparts, and Sarah Woodward is as brilliant as she always is as the defense lawyer, well matched by Paul Bazely as the prosecutor. Keir Charles as Chris Tarrant caricatures the gurning swagger of the man and goes for laughs over authenticity, and Jay Villiers as David Liddiment (who commissioned the programme) settles for a TV exec stereotype which is unconvincing and inaccurate. There’s too much playing to the gallery in a show that doesn’t need it.

Quiz throws plenty of TV gimmicks our way but they are handled well and disposed of pretty quickly. The audience participation is all good fun (although the moment in which I mistook the theme tune of You’ve Been Framed for that of Blind Date will haunt me forever). And a few tasters of earlier quizzes are thrown in to the history lesson which is so often, as here, a key ingredient of a Graham play. So we see people playing Des O’Connor, Jim Bowen and Leslie Crowther to varying levels of success. We also get replays, flashbacks, and spinning lights galore. Not every gimmick lands: a silly sequence in which the actors impersonate various foreign news reporters, and an (impressively done) dance sequence based on the idea of people in the street coughing at the Ingrams were a bit too Rupert Goold for my liking.

The success of the evening – which is Evans’ as much as Graham’s – is to use the style and pace of commercial television in the service of telling a fascinating and contested story as a piece of popular theatre without either art form cancelling out the other. It’s a really fun night out and an absolute must for fans of television game shows.

The “coughing major” scandal – always a misnomer, of course, since it was not the major who coughed – is a fabulous chapter in the history of British popular culture, perhaps our only rival to the infamous “Twenty-One” quiz show scandal involving Charles Van Doren in the 1950s (brilliantly told in the 1994 film Quiz Show). That would make a good play. And so does this.

Go and see it. That’s my final answer.

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