Quiz as State of the Nation Drama – Noel Coward Theatre

Quiz by Johan Persson

When you hold a mirror up to our society what can you see? The obvious things perhaps; an obsession with social media, selfies and surface, the continual loosening of social responsibilities, and a nation divided as its struggles to reconcile its continual attempts to look backwards and forwards at the same time. But look deeper and there are cracks everywhere, in every system, every support service, in every pillar of our social structure, and you start to wonder where did it all go wrong? Our greatest political playwrights have always interpreted the times we live in, and, as Quiz transfers to the West End, James Graham’s insightful reflections on crucial moments in post-war history have fast become a vital resource in understanding who we are.

In a little over a year, Graham has had four highly regarded plays running in the West End, three of which, since September, have been entirely new work. It’s an outstanding achievement, almost without comparison in modern theatre, and after picking up his first Olivier Award last night for Labour of Love (plus a Supporting Actor award for Bertie Carvel’s turn in Ink), this is a good time to reflect on what has been an astonishing year, one in which Graham has found a unique interplay between political purpose and popular style.

This House, which has had a remarkable lifespan since its premiere in 2012 and is currently on national tour, showed us the marked difference between political self-interest and genuine government, where staying in power at all costs outstrips the business of passing legislation for the greatest good. Set in the 1970s at a moment of upheaval that shifted British politics to the right, into Thatcher’s willing arms, and changed it forever, in This House Graham shows us why our democratic system now feels so remote from the people it governs, with constituency representation frequently losing out to individual ambition and Party directive.

This is exactly the theme of Labour of Love, in which Graham pits New against Old Labour in one particular midlands constituency over 20 years to show us the deep division and confliction of purpose that runs through our political parties. When a shiny young man with a bright Ministerial future is parachuted into a safe Labour seat in the mid-1990s, it causes considerable upset for the more traditional left-leaning local constituency office. Over two decades we observe the problems caused by MPs treading water until they can get somewhere better and Labour’s failure to bridge the precipice that still runs down the centre of the Party.

And finally with Ink, Graham explained the rise and rise of the tabloid, and its unshakeable hold on every kind of political and popular thinking. Again, using the crucial period 1969-70 when Rupert Murdoch purchased the newspaper and set its editor Larry Lamb a target to beat its nearest rival, the pair essentially opened Pandora’s Box, unleashing every base and questionable journalistic impulse to create a public appetite for sleaze and scandal we are far from abating even 50 years later. Crucially, Graham shows us, that the fourth estate is an entirely unelected group of people with little but sales figures and click bait in mind, and undergoes almost no scrutiny, but their continual intervention and control of public opinion wields a fearsome power that challenges the independence of many of our oldest institutions.

Collectively, this is a body of work that tells us that much is broken, that the once enviable clarity of our democratic system and freedom of the press have curdled, where the gap between the government and the governed has never felt wider. None of it, Graham suggests is beyond hope, its all still worth fighting for, but that there are crucial moments in history – much like the one we’re living through now – where there is a chance to change things for the better, because getting it wrong will lead to decades of rot. And throughout, Graham asks questions about the power of the individual to effect change, where even the best intentions can forge an unexpected future.

So, to Quiz and the power of the television media to thwart or even misdirect our justice system. Transferring from Chichester where it opened to rave reviews, Quiz is about fluctuating concepts of truth in a world of fake news and trial by television. What does justice mean in this new environment and does it have anything to do with truth and fairness? At the heart of Quiz is a debate about the nature of innocence and the extent to which our legal system, founded on the principle that guilt must be proven beyond doubt, is subject to the highest bidder, where scant circumstantial coincidence can be contorted to suggest an alternative story. Quiz effectively sets the near powerless individual against the might of a TV company with the resources to influence not just the outcome of a trial but also our collective memory of an incident none of us ever saw.

Mention the name Charles Ingram and your first thought will be millionaire cheat. But that perception, Graham argues, has been manufactured by a powerful media of newspapers and television, and embedded by 15 years of mythology. With only a few small tweaks since its Chichester run, Quiz is still as sharp and exciting as it was 6 months ago (see previous review here), presenting the case for the prosecution in the first half and the case for the defence in the second, based on the book Bad Show by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett (well worth a read if you want more detail on the case).

Getting a West End transfer right is not always easy, but director Daniel Evans and designer Robert Jones have clearly thought carefully about how best to bring their ¾ -round production into the proscenium arch theatre. Fitting perfectly onto the slightly adapted Noel Coward stage, which has been turned into a TV studio with onstage seating, Jones’s design reflects the exuberant glitz of the TV game show, a brightly lit world of neon cubes, flashing panels and multiple screens to relay the drama from every angle.

Some additions include a new warm-up act, played by the chameleonic Kier Charles, to start the two halves, reinforcing the falsity of the gameshow set-up, nodding to the mask performers wear in public, while crucially (and finally) delivering those pub quiz answers at the start of Act Two which were absent from the Chichester version. But most importantly, the warm-up act creates the tone of the show, the fundamental purpose of which is to bring the audience into the action from the start. This is no passive West End play where you sit back and receive a performance, but through the pub quiz round, an opportunity to appear in the montages and the chance to vote on Ingram’s guilt using the electronic devices attached to every seat, the audience is constantly asked to play along, to think and pass judgement on what you have seen, much as you would if you read the ‘evidence’ in a newspaper.

And you can certainly feel the auditorium responding to Graham’s dramatic techniques more actively than most West End shows. People engage with each other as the baton is handed back to us to make decisions, but also, given the addictive nature of the Millionaire format, people mutter as they try to answer the questions in the reconstructed TV scenes or in the wonderful section where the Ingram’s test their popular culture knowledge by guessing the karaoke tune and identifying classic characters from Coronation Street, almost as if they were watching a game show at home on the sofa. How interesting an NT Live screening of this play would be – introducing the screen element to a concept that deliberately comments on how we use screens to make cursory assessments of truth and justice.

Graham’s work is always full of wonderfully observed pop culture references and a warm nostalgia for the cultural past, but in Quiz these really come into their own, and you can feel the audience’s delight as Graham walks us through the wider context of the Ingram case. The fantastic gameshow montage is still a high point, and while Brucie may have been excised to make way for other content, there is still so much charm in the recreated version of The Price is Right and Bullseye, now even more poignant given the passing of the great Jim Bowen since the Chichester run. And while you can feel Graham gleefully revelling in his childhood memories, it also evokes the same connection for much of the room, of a simpler time that was clearly the forerunner of the madness of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and our more recent obsession with constructed reality TV.

Daniel Evans’s direction is light and effortless, with the action moving so effortlessly that 2.5 hours speeds by. But the fun elements of the story remain perfectly in balance with the play’s serious purpose, so the tension builds carefully in the Millionaire scenes and there are several poignant moments where the once colourful world is starkly lit by Tim Lutkin as the consequences of the action and the real nature of ‘justice’ are truly felt.

The performances have deepened since the earlier run, and Kier Charles almost steals the show with his hilarious portrayal of a collection of much-loved TV hosts. From Leslie Crowther and Bowen to Chris Tarrant, Charles clearly relishes every moment, amplifying the tics and mannerisms of each of these well-loved presenters with often hilarious results. Gavin Spokes as Major Ingram has found greater depths of emotion in the role, so that now the damaging effects of his time in the hot seat are considerably more poignant, while quiz-loving Diana played by Stephanie Street is a tad more ambiguous.

Two further notable points also emerge from the West End run of Quiz ; first that London audiences are considerably more cynical than those in Chichester, and while there is a swing towards Not Guilty after the second half, the statistics for recent performances show it is far closer to 50:50 than it was in West Sussex; Second, in reality the way justice is dispensed can be wildly disproportionate to the crime committed. While the Ingrams may have been given relatively short suspended sentences to accompany their guilty verdicts with the need for justice to ‘seen to be done’, the wider response was ludicrous. Graham leaves us to question whether they really deserved to be hounded by the press and the public everywhere they went, to have their children bullied at school, to have their pets shot and for Charles Ingram’s much-loved army career to be terminated, all for supposedly cheating on a quiz show? Multiple lives irreparably damaged for arguably a minor infraction?

Like the plays that have gone before, Graham has taken a key moment in TV history and asked us to think more carefully about what it means and why it set society on a new, less worthy, path. Justice doesn’t begin and end in court rooms any more, and while the media can whip up a frenzy and bring the full might of the mob down on the powerless individual, there seems to be little hope of fairness. If you leave this show discussing the case and the way in which we all jump to conclusions, then Graham has done his job because challenging how we all respond to the institutions that wield societal power is the only way to improve them. As for Quiz itself, as a theatrical experience, let’s leave the final word to Jim Bowen – super, smashing, great!

Quiz is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 16 June. Tickets start at £15 with day seats available for £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 400 shows. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

7 responses to “Quiz as State of the Nation Drama – Noel Coward Theatre

  • JohnA

    Thanks for this, Maryam. Ironically, your glowing, comprehensive review has probably moved Quiz considerably lower down my priority list. For next week’s trip it will certainly be behind The Moderate Soprano (which, to be fair, was probably number one anyway) and The Way of the World (I’ll read your review after I see that one). It’s not really anything to do with my ambivalent reactions to Graham’s plays but everything to do with your enthusiasm for certain elements of the production. In short, the audience participation that you so enjoyed is a definite negative for me. While the Guilty/Not Guilty vote is a little gimmick that wouldn’t put me off, the prospect of sitting in an auditorium with people venturing quiz answers to each other during the performance doesn’t appeal at all. I might yet see it (for one thing, day seats for my other choices might be hard to come by at this stage of their runs) but other productions will be ahead. I think you make some good points about the baleful influence of the media and, a few years ago I’d have been reminding people how perspicacious were the comments of the likes of Neil Postman (‘Big Brother turns out to be Howdy Doody’*) and Frank Zappa (‘your mind is totally controlled, it has been stuffed into my mould, and you will do as you are told until the rights to you are sold’**) on television; but the alacrity with which various other media have picked up the baton after TV’s first leg is even more disturbing.

    An added irony, perhaps, is that your review of The Country Wife (or He Droops to Conquer?) might well affect my choice the other way. Michael Billington was definitely putting me off – not because of his objections to the updating of the drama but because his description of a shouty performance brought back bad memories of Mother Courage. I also found, not for the first time, audience behaviour at Southwark Playbouse disruptive – they didn’t need quiz questions to be gabbing away during the performance. But I’ve liked the play ever since I saw the TV version with Helen Mirren, Bernard Cribbens et al (if you don’t know it you can find it on youtube) and, having seen a fine version by Manchester Met students set in the 1960s, the change of era certainly won’t, in itself, put me off. So your rather positive review is inclining me towards Newington Causeway after all.

    *from Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)

    ** from I’m the Slime (1973)

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hello John – nice to hear from you, and glad you enjoyed the review even if it hasn’t pushed the show up your must-see list. Don’t be put off by the occasional audience whisper, it was just interesting to feel the level of engagement in the room, rather than the usual passive reception of plot that happens in most shows.

      There was something much more alive and alert about this production that is lovely to observe. Theatre about political subjects, can often be rather dreary or finger-wagging, so finding an entertaining way to connect with wider audiences can only be a good thing.

      Thanks for the added knowledge of The Country Wife, and the Southwark Playhouse version is certainly worth a try. The 1920s setting is lovely, there’s some nice technique and its good, slightly bawdy, fun. Not the most nuanced production, but sometimes simply giving audiences a good time is just as valuable – and if like Graham you can do that while saying something serious, then it can only widen the audience for theatre in general.

      I look forward to hearing about your next visit and your views on The Way of the World if you see it. It sounds as though it settled by press night which is great to hear.

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    I ended up going to see Quiz first after all. Arriving too late to get across to Southwark, with no day seats left for The Moderate Soprano and working on the assumption that the Donmar would be impossible as they would still be re-accommodating all the people who had tickets for performances cancelled because of the sad death of Alex Beckett I snapped up the one remaining day seat (Front row stalls) for the James Graham play on Monday evening.

    You were right, I think, to suggest that the audience participation wasn’t as distracting as it might have been. I’d still have preferred a straight play – for reasons too complex to explain here I actually find what you call ‘the usual passive reception of plot’ quite a positive thing – but at least the murmuring was confined to the appropriate points (I had anticipated people nudging their companions and telling them every time they recognised a celebrity but, thankfully, that never happened). I even helped my young neighbours with the Pub Quiz (they didn’t recognise the theme tune from The Sweeney). I also couldn’t help noticing how these tended to support, at least as far as I’m concerned, one of Ingrams’ explanations as I would have regarded the Baron Haussmann and Googol questions as pretty general information (though I don’t think I’d have pretended not to know, as he claimed to be doing) while seeing some of the popular culture questions as belonging almost to an alien universe. By the way, having seen the play more than once you can satisfy my curiosity as to whether the Pub Quiz winners were a ‘plant’. It just looked a bit suspicious that they were among the on-stage audience contingent and had a team name that gave the opportunity for a very easy quip.

    The Quiz Show montages were impressive but my decades long estrangement from popular game shows made me wonder whether the presentation was (deliberately?) exaggerated or whether these shows really are all ultra-camp. And, while I admired Keir Charles’s sheer dedication and energy there was un unmistakable sense of ‘generic presenter’ about the different characters he portrayed. I also wondered if I spotted one of JG’s rare inaccuracies here. I remember the ‘Yes/No interlude’ from my childhood when it was a feature of Take Your Pick with Michael Miles presenting; but in the play they seem to have given it to Des O’Connor and Miles isn’t mentioned in the character list.

    I also wondered whether Graham is being rather less objective than usual in this play – either because he is convinced of the Ingrams’ essential innocence or just because it makes for good drama to have two votes with very different results (fwiw, I went ‘not guilty’ twice but that was mainly because I take the presumption of innocence very seriously). I’m a bit handicapped by my sketchy knowledge of the case but Wikipedia (which, as we know, is always completely trustworthy) mentions the testimony of one Larry Whitehurst, a contestant, who claimed to have identified a pattern of coughing, especially from Tecwen Whittock. Not only is Whitehurst not in the play but the defence barrister seems to suggest that nobody outside the studio crew spotted anything suspicious. Graham’s play seems to favour the defence in a rather obvious way – to the extent that I was surprised 42% were still going ‘Guilty’ by the end. Whitehurst’s evidence wouldn’t, I think, have changed my verdict. The most telling words I read in my background investigations was the judge’s reminder that ‘coincidences happen’ (especially as I remember my days playing quiz machines when I, very occasionally, got runs of correct guesses that amazed me). It might be worth mentioning that the play also ignores the insurance frauds for which Ingrams was later convicted – frauds which pre-dated the quiz show days. To be fair, though, such evidence wouldn’t be permitted in an unconnected case even if they’d known about it; so maybe leaving it out was the right decision.

    James Graham remains an enigma. After exposure to five plays, This House remains my favourite – and I didn’t like that very much, it seems. And yet I’m still keen to see what he comes up with next. I suppose his shrewd choice of fascinating subjects combined with his (almost) impeccable research leads me to make allowances for him that I wouldn’t make for most others.

    Catching Quiz on Monday left me at a loss for a Wednesday matinee before heading home. I even considered seeing The Ferryman again but there were no decent seats at affordable prices. I eventually got a day seat for Young Frankenstein, half thinking I might be glad of the interval to make my escape. As it happened, it was about as good as it gets for a genre that I generally dislike. I got the very strong impression that the cast really love the show and their positive vibes infected the audience. If you haven’t seen it, I can recommend catching it should you get a chance. Day seats £25, 2nd row stalls.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John, sorry to hear you didn’t manage to get tickets to the shows you intended, but I am glad you saw Quiz, even if you had mixed reactions to it.

      By passive I meant that seeing the next big show has become another form of cultural consumption, a box to tick rather than something to engage with and as regular attendees, we want to be emotionally engaging or politically challenged. But others ‘receive’ the performance, go home and never think about it again. So while Graham is using the gimmick of votes and quizzes to draw people in, it worked and it felt as though the whole auditorium was leaning forward, engaged and responding to a communal event which was a lovely experience.

      In terms of the play’s own ‘objectivity’, I think its right that we are essentially manipulated to respond in particular ways, but not from any particularly impassioned believe in the Ingrams’ guilt or innocence, but as an exercise in the use of evidence to sway popular thinking and as a metaphor for something wider and more concerning. So Act One shows us the information we were given at the time, while Act Two says but if we spin this evidence a different way, you get an alternative outcome.

      I don’t think the pub quiz winners were planted, someone in the Circle won when I was there and the Time Out theatre critic mentions winning it in his review. In Chichester the answers were marked in the interval by the front of house staff, and we were asked if we wanted to be a contestant in one of the quiz montages (which we declined).

      If you want more information then the book Bad Show is worth a read, although it takes a considerably more defensive position that Graham does.

      Look forward to hearing your thoughts on your next trip and hope your have more luck accessing tickets to the shows you want to see.

  • JohnA

    “I don’t think the pub quiz winners were planted, someone in the Circle won when I was there …”

    Interesting. On Monday the winners (well, those who claimed the winning score, nobody checked anything) were in the stage seating and gave their team name as ‘BJ’ – which prompted a ‘shh…it’s a family show’ from Charles.

    “If you want more information then the book Bad Show…”

    I’ll see if I can find it in a library (did you get round to looking at ‘One Hand Clapping’ btw?). As I said, I worry about the convictions on the simple ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ test – but then I don’t know everything the jury was told. Two things shocked me though: firstly the fact that the company’s edited (read ‘doctored’) tape was given any credence at all; secondly I’d have expected the jury, when told it was ‘all or none’ because of he conspiracy element, to decide it wasn’t safe to convict any of them. Quite how the judge’s instruction could have dispelled their doubts about Diana’s guilt is beyond me.

    “Look forward to hearing your thoughts on your next trip and hope your have more luck accessing tickets to the shows you want to see.”

    I quite often fail to see my preferred shows because my primary purpose for the regular visit is work followed by my concert society (always Tuesday) then a Wednesday matinee before getting the train home. The great thing about London is that there’s usually a wide choice even from midweek matinees but every now and then I end up at the start of some productions’ runs, when cheap tickets are scarcer, and having already seen the ones with easy availability. I’ve often done worse than Young Frankenstein, which turned out not too bad despite not being my usual fare.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Thanks John. I think your doubts about the justice of the conviction given the evidence the jury saw and the judges instruction are exactly the point Graham is making about how a media storm affects the way justice is dispensed and the blurring of truth.

      The breadth of London theatre is lovely and does mean you often come across something unexpectedly. Let’s hope for more of that next time.

  • The Writer – Almeida Theatre | Cultural Capital

    […] and Part 2 reviews), three new plays have opened in as many weeks in London’s major theatres – Quiz at the Noel Coward Theatre, Instructions for Correct Assembly at the Royal Court, and now Ella […]

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