Friday, November 24, 2017


Chichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva

“What is truth and what is lies, what is fact and what is fable ?” ponders the Headmaster in Daniel Evans’ first play of the season, Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On.
The same philosophical puzzles are posed in his last, a new piece by James [This House] Graham.
He gets the meta-theatricals in early, as one cast member hesitates before taking the oath in court. The whole truth ? Nothing but the truth ? Is truth really in the eye of the beholder ? There is much musing on the media, the image not the message, Psy-Ops, confirmation bias, the nature of memory and the very British tendency to build someone up only to knock them down. The issues raised run much deeper than popular television.

It’s a remarkable entertainment – funny, thought-provoking, nostalgic, and, famously, interactive. We get a keypad to vote with, as well as a clipboard for the pub quiz questions posed by warm-up man Paul Bazeley.

In the more light-hearted first half, we get, as well as our pub quiz – TV themes, zodiac signs, brother to York and Wessex – a voting key pad, a potted history of the TV game show from Take Your Pick through Bullseye to Mastermind, and an introduction to the incestuous “community” of WWTBAM, including Diana Ingram, her husband Major Charles and her nerdy brother Adrian.
The narrative, and the courtroom snippets, here are skewed to the Production Company’s prosecution case, and the audience vote at the commercial break is 90/10 against the Ingrams. But after the interval, we see the “facts” from the defendants’ perspective. We’re being manipulated again, of course, but less blatantly – the shooting of family pet Buffy the cat – and there’s a wonderful speech by the Portia for the defence [Sarah Woodward]. This time, the vote clears the trio by 57 to 43 – conspiracy theorists might note that, in 20 shows, this is the fifth time these exact percentages were recorded.
It’s given a glossy production almost in the round. “Just like the telly,” with shiny black studio floor and a neon cube centre stage. The intimate family moments work well, and less naturalistically, the choreographed coughing as the couple are hounded on the tube, the talk-back whispers, the invention of the Machine, rising like Frankenstein’s monster to the sound of Handel. As the Major is coached in the closed book of popular culture, there’s a brief glimpse of Coronation Street, and several excruciating visits to a Karaoke in Daventry.
Uniformly excellent performances – Bazely is the prosecution’s QC as well as the pub quiz man, Henry Pettigrew the pathetic brother, Jay Villiers the Judge as well as ITV boss Liddiment, a witness, and an unsympathetic police officer.
Mark Meadows plays Tecwen Whittock who allegedly did most of the coughing, as well as the Major’s commanding officer - a lovely moment where they share a love of G&S “I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral, I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical” ...
Stephanie Street gives us a likeable, though quiz-fixated and determined, Diana – Gavin Spokes squirms and sweats in the hot seat, a man out of his depth and his league. And Keir Charles plays not only Tarrant, all his mannerisms magnified on the huge monitors, but, his quick changes done at the edge of the stage, all the other smiling, smarmy quiz inquisitors [no, not Michael Miles, [who now remembers him?] but Des O’Connor, who took over Take Your Pick in the 90s], even briefly Brucie on VT.
As the show’s sales pitch has it:

Is Quiz:
A) The world premiere of a new play by acclaimed writer James Graham?
B) A provocative re-examination of the conviction of Charles Ingram, ‘the coughing Major’, for cheating, following his appearance on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
C) A hilarious celebration of the great tradition of the British quiz show?
D) A razor-sharp analysis of the 21st century’s dangerous new attitude to truth and lies?

All four, of course, is the correct answer, though I might have voted for B – based on the book Bad Show: The Quiz, the Cough, the Millionaire Major – the play shines an unflattering light on the media, the police, the production company and makes a cogent case, if not for exoneration, then at least for a re-examination of this curious affair.

production photograph: Johan Persson

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