As we begin to settle in our seats an overly-enthusiastic warm-up comic bounds on stage in a bright yellow t-shirt with a smiley face on it. He is your typical warm-up act, cracking jokes (about himself and the playwright), and forcing the audience to interact with one another by shaking hands and hi-fiving. It’s all very Butlin’s entertainment camp circa 2000.
Then the lights go down for the play to begin, and the ‘warm-up’ act reappears on stage in the role of Chris Tarrant. Unbeknownst to the audience, he was an actor and the play started five minutes ago, breaking the boundaries between performance and reality before anybody even realised. This is James Graham at his most impressive. Although his latest play, Quiz, is occasionally laboured and a little too self-aware, its central premise on the objectivity of truth is timely in this age of ‘alternative facts’.
The story centres on the notorious coughing scandal on the popular television show ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’. Major Charles Ingram had been struggling in the first half of the show, but whizzed through the later rounds recorded the next day, which many linked to the suspicious series of coughs coming from the audience. A media frenzy soon erupted as the case was taken to court and the Ingrams were later found guilty of fraud. But was the story really that simple?
Graham’s play is split into two halves: the case for the prosecution and the case for the defence. The set functions as both the television studio and the courtroom, the implication being ‘trial by media’. And we, the audience, get to vote. Both at the interval and at the end of the play.
This form of interactive theatre is fun and engaging. Along with the innovative use of cameras within the show it really does feel like being in a live television studio. Keir Charles is spot-on as presenter Chris Tarrant (wry smiles and all) and provides the majority of the laughs throughout the play – most disturbingly as Craig David performing ‘7 Days.’
But Graham’s characters can occasionally lack depth, and this is rather apparent in Quiz. Although it is the point of the play to examine the superficiality of our news cycle and understanding of truth, I couldn’t help but find some of the references of the actors to being ‘representations’ and long definitions of the role of the jury patronising and a little too overt.
Graham’s best work comes about when he’s not shouting it from the rooftops. In presenting the case of the prosecution in the first half, which inevitably prompts most audience members to vote guilty, followed by the case of the defence in the second half that tends to overturn the verdict, Graham subtly shows how the audience’s beliefs are shaped by what they have just seen. After all, is there such a thing as objective truth when we can be manipulated to believe almost anything?
Quiz is pacy and exciting to watch, and involves a real pub quiz for the audience. Its political message is over-egged but nevertheless thought-provoking and entertaining. Another hit for Graham!
Quiz continues at the Noel Coward Theatre until 16 June. For more information and tickets visit here.