Life-changing wealth which is won in an instant then recklessly sacrificed a second later is the stuff of which great drama is made. It was the formula that propelled TV’s ground-breaking Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to the top of the ratings in 1998. It transformed quiz shows from mere memory tests to a gladiatorial public spectacle. Out went the conveyor belt offering the prize of a cuddly toy and in came cheques that would let you instantly retire.
James Graham’s new play Quiz dissects the whole concept of the game show and lays it bare on the intimate Minerva stage. In doing so, it probes Millionaire’s most controversial moment, the conviction of its most high-profile winner for deception in 2003, and, in true game-show style, asks the audience whether the jury got it right.
Major Charles Ingram was given an 18-month suspended sentence, after winning the £1m jackpot. It was alleged that a series of coughs from a member of the audience pointed him to the right answers–although he has always denied he cheated. On the first night, the majority found Ingram “not guilty”–for this is a sympathetic portrayal of his destruction, self-inflicted or otherwise.
As the courtroom spectacle unfolds we are given lavish flashbacks not just to Ingram’s night in the hot seat and his preparation for it, but to the whole history of TV gaming. From The Price is Right to Bullseye, Quiz exposes the wonderfully shallow cardboard pedigree of the genre, and Keir Charles’ pitch-perfect portrayal of all the great game show hosts–not least Millionaire’s Chris Tarrant–sets the tone.
Audience participation is fully embraced. A pub quiz runs in parallel, where you can win a complimentary ice-cream during the interval. At times audience members seemed too engrossed in their own general knowledge test to worry about Ingram’s.
Nearly three hours of onstage action rattles past at speed, as the boundaries between reality, artistic conjecture, and entertainment are repeatedly crisscrossed and blurred.
But this still feels like a work in development. Some sharper editing of the opening scenes and a decluttering of ideas is needed. If it can achieve that, it will be heading to the West End to join Graham’s other successes currently playing there, Ink and Labour Of Love.
This post originally appeared in iNews on November 13, 2017, and has been reposted with permission.