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