It’s hard to find a show out there that doesn’t, in some way or other, reflect on or critique our society. After all, holding up a mirror to its audience is a quality often ascribed to theatre. It is refreshing, however, to see a show do that in such an entertaining, original and yet subtle way as Quiz does.
Based on the so-called Coughing Major Scandal in a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? episode from 2001, this cleverly written piece re-examines the circumstances and evidence surrounding Charles Ingram’s cheating practices, for which he and his wife were convicted in court.
Through a well-crafted back-and-forth between game show and court room, we learn about the events on the night, the lead-up and the aftermath. As an audience, we are constantly called upon for our judgment; both morally and literally. We have little machines with which we can vote – first for multiple-choice quiz answers, later for more important matters.
The set, which is designed to look very much like the original gameshow, aids the immersive style of the piece, in which we are often addressed, either as studio audience, pub quiz participants or spectators in a court. There are live cameras projecting our faces onto screens, and at some point we are urged to form a team pub quiz team with our neighbours.
The nostalgic scenes about British television at the turn of the century and Gavin Spokes’ rendition of presenter Keir Charles are well done (if sometimes a little over the top) and evoke continuous laughter. But it is in the court room scenes that the play really starts to hit home, as it becomes increasingly clear how much the trial is like a game show, and entertainment and justice are becoming dangerously intertwined.
For as the play progresses, the lines between the different worlds it inhabits become increasingly blurred, with an added metanarrative layer thrown into the mix. Lawyers appear in flashing neon lights, and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire banners declare the interval. Questions about authenticity and fairness are asked. If art is a reflection of the truth – does that mean it is a lie?
Although it jumps a lot in time and space, James Graham’s sophisticated writing still manages to mould the different elements and layers of the story into one cohesive narrative, all the while playing with our expectations.
In the end, what this play does is test its audience’s gullibility and confirmation bias. The parallels it draws between contemporary tv entertainment, the theatre, the media and justice, while not entirely new, are presented well, and some interesting moral questions are posed with it. Sometimes the production borders on becoming too gimmicky, but luckily it never really does. Quiz successfully illustrates the overlap of entertainment and justice by entertaining its audience into believing what they see. The fact that a spectator audibly whispers ‘Brexit’ right before the blackout just goes to show that although the play is about a gameshow from 17 years ago, its current-day relevance is not lost on its audience.
Quiz is playing at the Noël Coward theatre until 16 June
Photo: Johan Persson