'Quiz': Theater Review
Prize-winning British dramatist James Graham draws timely political lessons from a notorious TV game-show scandal in his latest interactive comedy.
Specializing in fact-based dramas with strong political resonance, the prolific young British playwright James Graham is on a sustained winning streak right now. His two recent hits, Labour of Love and Ink, both scored at the Olivier Awards last weekend, while a revival of his 2012 period piece This House is currently touring the U.K. to packed theaters.
Graham's latest West End transfer, Quiz, which premiered to general acclaim in Chichester last year, is a lively farce that uses a notorious TV game-show scandal from 2001 as a lens through which to scrutinize our current era of fake news and manicured media reality. Directed by Daniel Evans, this colorful production sometimes strains for a depth it does not deserve, but it's consistently entertaining and full of zesty comic energy. The culturally specific in-jokes may be too parochial to make much sense outside Britain, but Graham's dazzling domestic run looks likely to continue with this populist crowd-pleaser.
Freely adapting the 2015 book Bad Show: The Quiz, the Cough, the Millionaire Major by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett, Graham dramatizes the headline-grabbing true story of British army major Charles Ingram (Gavin Spokes), who almost won the big prize on the original U.K. version of the widely franchised TV general knowledge quiz Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But the network that hosts the show, ITV, noticed irregularities in Ingram’s sudden surge of good luck and notified the police. Shelving the broadcast and canceling the prize payout, they examined their studio recordings forensically, concluding that an audience plant had been signaling the correct answers to Ingram by coughing loudly.
The notorious "coughing major" court case saw Ingram, his wife Diana (Stephanie Street) and alleged accomplice Tecwen Whittock (Mark Meadows) accused of conspiracy to defraud the blockbuster show. Instead of taking home a million pounds, the trio received suspended jail sentences and heavy fines. Ingram was discharged from his military career and subsequently went bankrupt.
For this busy, fast-paced, occasionally over-cluttered production, director Evans transforms the Noel Coward Theatre into a garish combination of court room and TV studio complete with cameras, video screens and warm-up act. The audience effectively serves as jury members in both settings. The immersive game-show conceit also extends to interactive audience elements, some superfluous, others clever echoes of the play's themes. A multiple-choice "pub quiz" only tangentially related to the story feels like a cumbersome gimmick too far. But the electronic voting system which measures public opinion as to whether the Ingrams are guilty at different stages in the drama is a smart touch, Brecht with a hint of P.T. Barnum.
The first act of Quiz is played as knockabout comedy, laying out the tabloid caricature of the Ingrams as shifty cheats driven by financial desperation, with a cartoonish detour into the history of cheesy British TV quiz shows. Shifting in tone and viewpoint, Rashomon-style, the second act revisits the same events according to the defendants. Here Graham makes a strong case for the conspiracy charges being flimsy at best, a perfect storm of dubious evidence, media hostility and public disdain. When the press-night audience were asked to give their verdict after each act, 84 percent found the Ingrams guilty at the midway point. By the end, that figure had halved.
Standing out from a capable but fairly colorless ensemble cast is Keir Charles, who plays multiple minor characters as well as the central role of Chris Tarrant, U.K. host of the ratings-busting Who Wants to be a Millionaire? from 1998 to 2014. A rubber-faced natural clown in the Jim Carrey mold, Charles is the play’s chief source of comic anarchy, especially in his animated exaggerations of Tarrant's signature facial tics. His flair for building big laughs from tiny gestures is a gift to this production. Credit is also due to Sarah Woodward for her less showy but more nuanced portrait of Sonia Woodley, defense lawyer to the Ingrams and the most relatably human figure in the drama.
In Quiz, the fictionalized Tarrant appears broadly sympathetic to the Ingrams. However, the real Tarrant recently questioned Graham’s spin on events in a British newspaper, praising the play but insisting the defendants were "guilty as sin." In fairness, Graham is less concerned with exposing a possibly unjust court verdict than with using the Ingrams to extrapolate more timely and substantial points about confirmation bias and "weaponized narratives." But his attempts to link this case to the Iraq War, the rise of Donald Trump and the post-truth era feel glib and clumsy, demanding too much heavy historical lifting from a minor TV scandal.
Graham needs to relax. Quiz works just fine on its own terms, as an unashamedly fun West End farce with just a light political subtext.
Venue: Noel Coward Theatre, London
Cast: Kier Charles, Gavin Spokes, Stephanie Street, Sarah Woodward, Jay Villiers, Lizzie Winkler, Paul Bazely, Greg Haiste, Mark Meadows, Sharon Ballard, Henry Pettigrew
Director: Daniel Evans
Playwright: James Graham, based on the book Bad Show: The Quiz, the Cough, the Millionaire Major by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett
Set and costume designer: Robert Jones
Lighting designer: Tim Lutkin
Music and sound designers: Ben Ringham, Max Ringham
Video designer: Tim Reid
Movement director: Naomi Said
Presented by William Village, Playful Productions, Chichester Festival Theater