James Graham has turned his attention to national greed and our addiction to TV game shows for his latest factional stage play, Quiz, which opened last night on the Minerva stage at Chichester Festival Theatre.
It’s unlikely to win any prizes but many in the opening night audience, including actors Hugh Bonneville, Richard Wilson and Ophelia Lovibond, gamely threw themselves into an interactive pub quiz which made up part of the first act.
I thought that the faux parlour games, which included embarrassing audience participation (to win a free ice cream!) terribly desperate.
The winning ensemble of 12 play a total of 54 characters with Keir Charles dashing off stage during the opening to swap clothes and personalities, returning to play a variety of game show hosts.
Ultimately he settles down to do a passable impression of Chris Tarrant.
However, during a section charting the history of game shows and the public’s insatiable appetite to win free consumerables, he takes on hosts Des O’Connor – which surely should have been Michael Miles? – for Take Your Pick, Jim Bowen from Bullseye and Leslie Crowther for The Price Is Right.
In-between a pub quiz is held with the audience answering questions.
Actually the first half is an absolute mess but Quiz settles down after the interval to concentrate on presenting the case of the coughing major, Charles Ingram, who was convicted of cheating to win the top prize on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
The background to the case is woven into the first half with suggestions made that a secret syndicate existed to enable contestants, for the right price, to cheat their way, and win, on Millionaire.
I don’t know how much of Quiz is conjecture and Graham’s fertile imagination (the programme contains the usual rider calling the show ‘a fictional imagination’).
Certainly, as the play goes into the final rounds, the dialogue comes almost verbatim from the court transcript.
Millionaire was the biggest ratings winner in TV quiz history with the country at fever pitch, everyone ringing in, desperate to get on and win the chance of the £1m cash prize.
It was the biggest pot ever offered by a UK game show, in a genre more used to giving away fondue sets and cuddly toys.
In Graham’s plot we see Ingram’s wife, Diana (Stephanie Street giving a fine performance), and her brother Adrian Pollock, winning £30 here and £50 there in pub quizzes before Adrian, having something of a cash flow problem, hits on the idea of rigging the odds to get onto Millionaire.
He constructs his own ‘Fastest Finger First’ machine in his garage and practices while the ambitious, addicted Diana, caught up in his enthusiasm, makes contact with a fellow would-be contestant and quizzer, Tecwen Whittock.
Eventually, beating all the odds, both Adrian and Diana get on the show but each fall at their £64,000 questions.
Their only way forward is to coach the pleasant, benign and mallable Charles to have a go.
Gavin Spokes, hitherto largely known for West End musical theatre, holds the entire drama together with a compelling and entirely believable turn as the ‘innocent’ major.
And, after hearing the evidence and watching his terrific performance, you too may have your doubts.
Paul Bazely and Sarah Woodward play opposing QCs who present the case for and against, when Ingram, his wife and Whittock appear in court charged with conspiracy to deceive.
But, with more interactiveness, it is the theatre audience which is asked to pass judgement.
Spokes’ Ingram remains throughout the model of an army major, honest, upstanding, a respectable father of three who was hothoused by his wife in preparation for the quiz.
It’s riveting and, thanks to Graham’s judicial use of the truth, casts further doubt on the man’s guilt.
I was astonished to hear, for example, that the crucial recordings of the show, picked up by five microphones in the studio, were hacked to pieces and edited together by the TV producers, Celador, and presented as damning evidence.
There had been a total of 192 coughs from throughout the audience on Ingrams’ second, prizewinning, night
More than 30 came from all of the remaining Fastest Finger First contestants, 19 identified as coming from Whittock, and they had been edited to enhance their sound.
Except that Tarrant, sitting next to Ingram throughout, wasn’t aware of any deliberate coughing.
Whatever the truth the Ingrams lost the million pounds and, perhaps revealing his true shortcomings as a criminal mastermind, he was also subsequently made bankrupt twice.
Shockingly, post court case, where the trio received suspended sentences, the couple and their kids were victimised and persecuted. Their dog was kicked to death, their cat shot, the daughters beaten up and the Ingrams inundated with death threats.
No-one likes a cheat.
Quiz runs at the Minerva Theatre until December 9.
Cough, cough. No top prize for James Graham's Quiz, his new, interactive play about consumerism and greed, despite a terrific central turn by Gavin Spokes.