wed 22/08/2018

Quiz, Noël Coward Theatre, review - entertaining confection | reviews, news & interviews

Quiz, Noël Coward Theatre, review - entertaining confection

Quiz, Noël Coward Theatre, review - entertaining confection

James Graham tells of the 'coughing major' who wanted to be a millionaire

Egos: Gavin Spokes as Charles Ingram, Keir Charles as Chris Tarrant in 'Quiz'Johan Persson

You could be forgiven for not remembering the “coughing major” brouhaha in 2001, coming as it did the day before 9/11, when we had rather more pressing matters to attend to than a contestant being accused of cheating on television quiz show. But playwright James Graham has mined an entertaining confection from the affair and its subsequent court case in 2003.

The matter concerns Charles Ingram (Gavin Spokes) a British Army major who appeared on a show never explicitly named in Quiz but which we know to be Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, presented in the UK by Chris Tarrant and an extraordinarily successful franchise that its creators have sold around the world 

Most of the play is a courtroom drama as Ingram and his wife, Diana (Stephanie Street), and their accomplice, Tecwen Whittock (Mark Meadows), are accused of defrauding the programme's producers when Major Ingram “won” the top prize of £1 million despite appearing to be a bit of a dunderhead. The prosecution case was that Whittock, by coughing as the correct answer out of four possible responses was read out, aided Ingram to the prize. (Pictured below: Gavin Spokes, Stephanie Street and Mark Meadows)

Graham interweaves the courtroom action with vignettes telling the story of where quizzes fit into the history of light entertainment on British TV – cue Keir Charles as an array of gameshow hosts in addition to his excellent impersonation of Tarrant, full of tics, moues and physical contortions – including gameshows, quizzes and soaps. Amusing though they mostly are, some do sometimes interrupt the flow.QuizThere's a lot of audience participation; we get to take part in a general knowledge quiz, and twice vote on whether we think the major is guilty – first after hearing the prosecution and then after the defence case. (By the way, in a play much concerned with truth and transparency, I'd like to see actual evidence of votes before taking the creatives' version of how numbers may change between the two polls. But maybe that's the point, about how we all perceive facts and truth individually.)

In giving an interesting rundown of how it came to be made, Graham shows Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? was that rare thing in TV – a genuinely original idea, a show that combined big money with risk and which therefore could throw up high drama. And while it undoubtedly provided great entertainment, it spawned what is called here “the community”, a bunch of quiz folk who became obsessed with getting on to the show, and devised ways of making loopholes work in their favour.

The play has had some tweaks since it was first staged at Chichester Festival Theatre last year, as we have entered the age of alternative facts, and Graham throws in lots of good points about truth, presentation of facts and populism. But while Quiz has a lot going on, sometimes exhaustingly so, it feels unfocused, and I'm not sure we know any of the main characters and their motivations any better at the end than we do at the beginning.

Spokes is excellent as the bumbling major, ably supported by a cast playing multiple roles. Daniel Evans directs at a lick, and Robert Jones's neon-light set that doubles as TV studio and courtroom is a delight.

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