Saturday, 11 November 2017

Theatre Review: Quiz

If you're of a certain age, as I am, the phrase 'is that your final answer?' is one that will immediately transport you backwards in time as quickly as Doc Brown's Delorean: Saturday night, ITV (back in the day where there was only one ITV), Chris Tarrant, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

We were pretty regular watchers of Millionaire in my family, so it's odd that I don't remember the incident which arguably made it most famous: the appearance of Charles Ingram, the so-called Coughing Major who was alleged to have cheated his way to the top prize. I'm not going to explain the story - that's what Wikipedia is for - except to say that Ingram and his accomplices (his wife and another quiz enthusiast) were all convicted of defrauding the show, a conviction that was subsequently upheld on appeal. But this is not an uncontroversial case and many believe that the convictions are wrong, or at least questionable.

Yep, that is an interactive voting pad.

'Many' including playwright James Graham who takes this episode as the subject for his newest play, Quiz. Regular, or even occasional, readers will know that I love James Graham, like, a lot and a new play of his (of which there are so many at the moment - when do you sleep James?!) is always a cause for celebration and immediate ticket purchasing. And, after the mild disappointment of Labour of Love, it was an utter delight to find that Quiz is classic Graham. I love this play almost as much as Ink and This House, my gold standard.

Graham's writing is, as ever, superb. Although perhaps not as successfully funny as some of his other work, it is endlessly clever and thought provoking. The themes help here. Quiz is, at heart, a consideration of the interplay between entertainment, truth and justice - and honestly could that be more relevant as the world 'celebrates' a year of President Trump? This discussion is taken, expertly, in all sorts of directions, from those you would probably expect to see in a play about this story (what impact did the media attention the case got have on the trial and by extension on justice more widely?) to some that are perhaps more unexpected and bigger (how just is life? why does it matter if you're breaking the rules of the game when the game is rigged against you anyway?) This latter idea is particularly cleverly done through the character of Ingram himself: his perceived poshness allows him to avoid jail but it also means that the public at large, egged on by the media, are anxious to see him fall. Even the Millionaire question setters want him, and people like him, to fail. What impact does this have on the jury in his trial?

One key way in which Quiz feels different to other Graham plays for me is that he has a definite point of view on Ingram's case in a way he doesn't, at least not as overtly, in his other work. Whilst there are still no outright heroes and villains here, it seems fairly obvious where Graham's personal sympathies lie. The structure of the play - act one is, essentially, the case for the prosecution, act two the case for the defence with the audience being asked to vote on Ingram's guilt at the end of each act - reinforces this. If it feels manipulative to present the story in this way that's because it is, but I think deliberately so. It emphasises again the way that different facts can be selected, presented and influenced by context and how they are inevitably misrepresented in the eye of a media storm; in other words it neatly uses structure to reinforce the play's key themes. Ultimately, you can agree with Graham's point of view or not (I don't, as it happens) but that doesn't affect the impact or relevance of the themes of the play.

This production, part of the Chichester Festival and staged in the bijou Minerva theatre, is first rate. Robert Jones’ design in particular is outstanding, using two concentric circles of revolve to house an amazingly well lit generic quiz show set which is suitably flexible to double as a minimal house/courtroom/pub/office etc as the plot demands. It is a perfect use of the space in the Minerva and - should this play transfer to London, which it thoroughly deserves to - will be difficult to replicate as effectively anywhere else. Daniel Evans, Chichester’s Artistic Director, directs brilliantly too. This is a fast paced, knockabout production which makes great, sensitive use of audience participation and is technically extremely complex without ever seeming so. Evans has had an outstanding first season at Chichester. Long may he reign there.

The cast, too, is superb. Quiz, like This House, is a proper ensemble piece with all but the two lead actors (playing the Ingrams) cast in multiple parts. Many multiple parts in most cases - some of the quick changes and logistics involved are staggering! The ensemble are fantastic as a group and as individuals but a few do stand out. As Ingram himself, Gavin Spokes is quietly - and at times devastatingly - brilliant. It’s an onion of part; almost a straightforward, and rather stupid, villain in the first act who reveals real depth, humanity and tragedy in the second. Spokes is particularly good at the latter, you really do just want to give him a huge hug by the end of the evening. Keir Charles, on the other hand, is loudly and exuberantly brilliant as all of the many quiz show hosts who are included in the play. Chris Tarrant is his main role, but he also gets Des O'Connor, Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther (these three in a single scene, including multiple on stage quick changes which is fantastically entertaining and impressive) and Bruce Forsyth. Although he is a great mimic, that’s not all he is; and he can’t afford to be since he is the one who manages the vast majority of the interaction with the audience which must be a terrifyingly unpredictable prospect for an actor! Sarah Woodward is great too as, amongst other things, the defence QC (the play being presented in part as the Ingrams’ literal trial) who manages to manifest the traditional British view of fairness and justice whilst still being enjoyably sassy and never mawkish.

Quiz is an absolute joy of an evening. It’s a great play but, more than that, it’s great entertainment. And I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s what I love about James Graham: he is a playwright who is not afraid to be entertaining, however serious his ultimate topic. He writes for an audience, not for himself, in a way that few other playwrights do. Long may his profligacy continue.

Quiz is in the Minerva at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 9th December. Tickets are limited so get your skates on.

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