…is the title of a new play by James Graham at the Noel Coward Theatre, London. Transferring from the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, its centre piece is the incident in which a contestant on the television quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire won a million pounds, apparently by cheating, and the trial which followed.
The play is about truth and the various ways in which it is distorted or denied – by the desire for popularity, publicity or media success, usually, though not always, involving money; through manipulation via the media, in the courts, in democracy, in all walks of life. There are a lot of ideas in here and I’m not sure that they are all clearly enunciated, though it’s a valiant effort.
At one point three performers explain that they are actors and none of this is real, art being a representation only, though one designed to exhibit truth. There is exposition about it being based on documents and interviews and much about the courtroom as a stage. According to the programme notes, the trial was a star-struck affair, with the jury and occupants of the public gallery often laughing at proceedings and an outbreak of ‘mass coughing’ – the judge had to stop the trial. The play magnifies this absurdity and places the judge and counsel on the game show set, operating like the show with the ultimate 50:50 question – ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not guilty’? That snappy description was taken from the programme and there are a lot of very neat ‘lines’ about this show, which, to this audience member, didn’t always read across seamlessly to what was on stage.
There is a passionate ( and timely ) plea for evidence based reasoning as opposed to emotional response and the ‘British values’ of justice and fair play are cited, only to be undermined. I guess the lead character’s profession ( he was a Major in the British army ) affords an irresistible opportunity to show the ‘British establishment’. This is lampooned, but later given a touching humanity.
The evolution of the game or quiz show is one metaphor, which allows the elastic faced Keir Charles to run through a succession of renditions of quiz/game show hosts past. I cannot attest to how well he represents these individuals, but he performs with gusto and the audience lapped it up (certainly recognising some of them). It creates the milieu, with the character of the CEO of Celadon Productions relating how his chart-topping show first came about and the Head of ITV David Liddiment buying it and subsequently demanding changes.
This was one of the elements which sat uneasily – the Liddiment character talks about making the questions easier, so that ‘ordinary people’ (for which read ‘idiots’) can answer them. Popular culture questions rather than history or high art. There was a school of thought which gave equivalence to what could be called ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture in the late 20th and early 21st century, but this isn’t really explored. In the plot it is more of a commercial decision. Fair enough, but all those ‘popular’ references – characters from Coronation Street, TV theme tunes – appear again and again and, I suspect, many people coming to see this play will do so because of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire a show which has just returned to TV. As much a ‘low’ culture audience as a ‘high’ one.
At the Saturday matinée which I attended I think the audience didn’t really know how to react. Was this a narrative with some broad comedy or something more cerebral? Was it a genuine attempt to demonstrate how easily we abandon reason? The audience participation element – being the game show audience, doing a pub quiz and, at the end of each Act, voting for guilty or not guilty verdicts – are clever ideas and speak to the theme. The ‘Results’ screens at the end suggest a serious attempt to engage the audience in the debate, yet the play which precedes this undercuts any such attempt. How can we believe this is anything more than a clever theatrical device? It seemed to me that the people participating on Saturday did so in genuine fashion and I can’t help wondering if the play doesn’t betray that.
I worry that Quiz is trying to have its cake and eat it? A play about ideas, it rattles along with lots of entertaining pizzaz, but the narrative – and there is a genuinely interesting story about people in there – tends to be overwhelmed. Nonetheless it raises serious questions and on the West End stage too. For that, at least, it is worth going to see.