On a sunny Saturday in London, I went to see Quiz at the Noel Coward Theatre. Written by James Graham, this has to be the most mental plays I’ve seen. Yet it’s thought-provoking and current in the light of social media as it is today. And while I enjoyed it, I also have to admit, it felt more like a spectacle than theatre.
Though I’m starting to wonder if it’s meant to…
Quick summary, the play is about a scandal which happened on television about fifteen years ago. In short, Charles Ingram, a contestant on ITV’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? won the show’s top prize of £1 million. It was later revealed that it had been a scam. Ingram had cheated with an accomplice, Tecwen Whittock, who cough whenever Ingram read out the correct answer.
Quiz is the fictionalised trial of this real-life event.
Why would this be the weirdest play I’ve ever been to?
First of all, let’s talk seating arrangement. Because theatre tickets don’t grow on trees, I got the cheapest ticket I could get. Up in the gods with an obstructed view. But it’s the Noel Coward Theatre and frankly, most seats in there are fairly good seats.
When I arrived, the man in the booking office said “we’ve changed your seat,” as he handed me my ticket. I was raised to be the polite sort, so I said, “oh, okay, thank you.” Turns out I was moved from my original seat to the stage. That’s right. There’s seating ON the stage. There I sat with a very lovely couple from Brentford who I did the pub quiz with halfway through the first act.
This play is weird.
For anyone considering, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the stage seats. I would have
preferred to admire the acting rather than the actor’s backs! But don’t get me wrong, it was all massive fun and I had a great time.
The play starts off as wonderfully flashy but shallow. Act one is a reiteration of the story as we know it. The cheater who didn’t get away with it. Keir Charles, who plays Chris Tarrant had me in complete stitches from start to finish. It was a ton of fun but wasn’t exactly much ponder. If you were here, you probably already knew this story.
In the second act, however, the glittering facade begins to fade. We’re now seeing the story from a whole new perspective. And naturally, as with most modern plays, there’s a neat little fourth wall break where the playwright takes the opportunity to explain that this is, in fact, a play and they are using art to explain a greater truth.
Now we start seeing the deeper levels James Graham has to explore.
Quiz is concerned with the weaponisation of narrative and the court of public opinion. As it’s presented in this play, the case of Charles Ingram is a witch hunt. When society is threatened – in this case, the innate and very British sense of fair play – a scapegoat must be produced. Actual guilt or innocence becomes irrelevant. Justice becomes entertainment. As James Graham himself puts it:
Reality is subjective now, for all of us, after this cross-contamination of real life and entertainment, fiction with fact.
Even though this play is dramatising an event which happened in 2003, the message is still painfully relevant. If anything, this strange mixing of entertainment, justice and truth has become worse in recent years.
Another interesting aspect of this play is the ability of the audience to cast votes. In the first act, this is just a fun piece of frippery. By the end, however, you see it for what it is. We see in real time the effect that good storytelling can have on public opinion. This is the weaponisation of narrative. We’re asked twice – is Charles Ingram guilty or not guilty? I won’t go into too much detail, but I promise you, it’s fascinating to watch the response.
Full disclosure, I come to this with a bit of baggage. I’ve been going to theatres my whole life, so I’m probably well trained in what to expect. This wasn’t it. I’ve also been in television audiences before on shows like Have I Got News for You. And, as I’ve mentioned, I work in television and was a runner on ‘shiny floor shows’ as they’re known. Big studio shows with talent, audience and those talkback headphones. Consequently, I had a massively surreal sensation throughout the play. Like a dream based on memory but all jumbled up. How this affected my watching the play, I don’t know. But it was really weird.
But hats off to James Graham. He has created an intriguing layered play which is great fun and amazingly thoughtful. This is one that’s going to sit with me for a long time and is well worth a mull. It’s a commentary on human nature, on the state of media and it’s courts of public opinion. The fact is, I walked into this knowing Charles Ingram was guilty. Now, I’m not sure. And that’s the sheer power of narrative.