Sometimes even Londoners need to leave the capital in search of excellent theatre and there are few more compelling reasons to get on a train than a new play by James Graham. In what has been an extraordinary 6 months for the writer, with two brand new plays running side-by-side on St Martin’s Lane, his latest new show Quiz premieres at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester, and London theatre managers should start clearing space and putting in their bids for what should be a guaranteed transfer in the coming months. What makes Graham’s work worthy of trip beyond the M25 is not just the rate of production, but the deeply researched stories that make for an extraordinarily consistent level of quality.
Regional theatre frequently feeds shows into the West End, and while these are largely revivals, Chichester Festival Theatre in particular has a provided some highly acclaimed productions in the last few years, including the Young Chekhov season, Half a Sixpence, Gypsy and the best version of Private Lives in a decade with Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor. With two sizeable theatres, the larger Festival Theatre and the smaller Minerva studio space, Chichester has much to offer a young production, trying out work before national tours and London transfers.
In his new play, Graham examines the British idea of fair play and our national obsession with all kinds of quizzes, taking the audience on a trip from local pub competitions to the high-stakes gameshow in a compelling examination of trial by television. Central to all of this, is the story of Charles and Diana Ingram who were accused of fraud when Charles became the third jackpot winner on the ITV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Whether or not the Ingrams cheated propels the story as Graham presents the case for and against, touching on wider popular cultural references and examining the power structures in UK society that have become a key theme of his work.
And this is not the first time that ideas of cheating on TV gameshows has captured the popular imagination, and been immortalised in art. In 1994, Robert Redford directed Quiz Show a film about a famous scandal in America in which numerous contestants testified that they had been given the answers in advance in order to prolong their tenure on the show. Uncovering an incredible scandal touching on class and religious divides that eventually implicating the academic Van Doren family whose rising star Charlie confessed to cheating at the behest of the producers, this fascinating film is a clear ancestor of Graham’s new play, examining similar notions of fraud and mass-public deception that are at the heart of fairness and televisual transparency.
As previously noted, Graham’s success as a playwriter is the result of how carefully his work is constructed, and the confidence it gives the audience knowing that he is entirely in charge of his material, that wherever the story is going, you’re in safe hands. The way Graham choses to put a show together is often unexpected, mixing timelines, perspectives and theatre forms to create non-linear storytelling, but he always succeeds in being both entertaining and encouraging the audience to rethink established positions, leaving the auditorium with a more nuanced understanding of what they have seen.
Labour of Love took a reverse and then a forward chronological approach to opening-up the history of the Labour Party in the last 30 years, while Ink had a more straight-forwardly dramatic approach but mixed in choreographed movement and montage sequences to reinforce the populist entertainment aspect of his examination of the The Sun’s first year under Rupert Murdoch. Quiz is pitched somewhere between the two, merging various time periods including the build-up to Charles Ingram’s appearance, the days filming Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and the subsequent court case, played in interlocking scenes which present the case for the prosecution in Act One, and, after the interval, the case for the defence.
Staged in the ¾ round, or more appropriately in the ¾ hexagon of the Minerva, set designer Robert Jones has created a multi-purpose circular central platform holding a neon cube in which much of the action takes place. Around the edge of the flooring there is a ring of changeable lighting which is used to suggest everything from the television studio to some cunningly implied grass during an unexpected lawn mowing scene.
It’s a layered story that opens with a pub quiz, setting the scene for the world of obsessive competition fanatics, laying a direct trail from that bar to the gameshow hot-seat. Graham wants us to understand that this is a world where the ability to memorise and recall knowledge is a source of pride for its participants. Consequently, a mini-industry of test books, gadgets and chat groups has grown-up around the individual’s desire to win, helping them to improve their chances of making it onto their desired programme.
The audience is hooked into this by participating in four pub quiz rounds during the first half of the show to understand why the characters have this particular desire to succeed. And it is here that Graham overtly links Tecwen Whittock, the man believed to have used his cough to help Charles Ingram, to Adrian Pollock and his sister Diana Ingram, dramatizing both their earlier appearance on the show, and ultimately to Charles’s own infamous million-pound success.
Each scene in Act One is another nail in the Ingram’s coffin, even the wonderful history of quiz shows montage that gives Keir Charles a chance to perform as Des O’ Conner, Jim Bowen on Bullseye, Leslie Crowther on the Price is Right and briefly on video as Bruce Forsyth on Play Your Card Right, as well as a reasonable impression of Chris Tarrant, is part of the argument about the growing status of quizzes on British television in the years leading up to the broadcast of Millionaire, and why it mattered so much to those who went on again and again.
As the audience uses their keypad to decide whether the Ingrams were guilty or not before the interval, it seems there’s nothing left to say. But as with Labour of Love, having shown you one version of events, in Act Two Graham realigns your thinking with a whole new angle on the evidence -and this is why construction is the key to Graham’s success, leading the audience confidently down one path only to force us to retrace our steps, where it all suddenly looks very different – the work of a master storyteller.
At the heart of the story is Gavin Spokes’s performance as Charles Ingram, a suitably baffled and bumbling military man, completely out of his depth in either scenario. While occasionally a little stagey in the wrong places – in scenes at home with Diana, played by Stephanie Street, rather than on the gameshow where Ingram claimed to be playing-up the drama – Spokes does keep the audience guessing, never quite confirming or denying Ingram’s guilt, letting the various debates twist our interpretation of his performance instead.
Quiz fanatic Diana is given a no nonsense determination by Street and, like her stage husband, it’s difficult to decide whether she is the Lady Macbeth of an elaborate fraud or just a super-fan who, along with her equally obsessive brother Adrian Pollock (played by Henry Pettigrew who lends distinction to multiple roles), were cast as the villains for being too successful. In what is a busy supporting cast playing at least four parts each, Keir Charles has the most fun mimicking the memorable game show hosts of the era, while successfully capturing the mannerisms and intonation of Chris Tarrant over the course of several scenes, while Sarah Woodward as defence lawyer Sonia Woodley is crucial in helping the audience reconsider the facts in the second half, not to mention having a marvellous cameo as Hilda Ogden.
2017 has been an exceptional year for new writing, especially in political theatre, and with three new plays since June, Graham has been at the forefront of this new wave. This goes a step beyond merely dramatizing key events but a genuine attempt to understand where power lies in society, and to rethink our concepts of truth, justice and appearance. The distorting role of the media directly links Quiz to the National Theatre’s version of Network with both asking important questions about the boundary between truth and entertainment in the television age and whether we can really trust what we see. There is one thing you can rely on however and that’s the value of heading to Chichester to catch this wonderful new play, while London theatre managers start a bidding war; they just need to ask the audience for the answer to the jackpot question – will Quiz earn itself a transfer – yes (cough, cough) or no?
Quiz is at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester until 9 December. Tickets start at £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturcalcap1