Minerva Theatre, Chichester – until 9 December 2017
MULTIPLE CHOICE IN A MANIPULATED WORLD… “We in this country,” says the red judge grandly, “Do not have trial by media or by mobs”. Hmm. Tell that to anyone now staring confusedly at the wreckage of reputation and career because an employer’s took instant fright at a Twitterstorm.
James Graham’s new play is a sharp-edged, finally rather poignant comedy which reimagines the affair of Major Charles Ingram. He was convicted – with his wife and a supposed accomplice – of fraud, after his 2001 win in ITV’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. The case was treated as riotous entertainment by the world’s media as m’learned friends argued over whether significant coughs from the studio audience had been giving him clues as he hesitated – rather showily – over multiple-choice double-your-money questions.
Characteristically intelligent and twistily playful, set on a hellishly shiny neon-edged TV-studio floor, the play explores the crossover between the serious and logical worlds of law and of democracy and the shimmer, manipulation and deception of light entertainment. Himself clearly a keen amasser of facts, Graham enters gleefully into the world of quiz fanatics (Mrs Ingram and her brother were obsessive autodidacts and Millionaire addicts).
The light-hearted first part of Daniel Evans’ showy production brings gales of laughter as he explains the development of quiz shows from the 70s, with Keir Charles nailing it not only as Chris Tarrant but as Des O’Connor, Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther and Bruce Forsyth; there is a Syd-Yobbo sketch of the head of ITV programmes David Liddiment, and Greg Haiste slimily watchful as the Celador creator of Millionaire, accurately targeting the psychology of competitive greed, tension, trivia-addiction and the fact that audiences really like to see people sweat.
How far these shows were precursors of today’s reality TV becomes suddenly clear. So is Graham’s merciless exploration of the “profiling” of competitors , and the makers’ irritation whentoo many Millionaire candidates were straight, male, middle-class know-alls like the Ingram family, rather than their wider target audience desired. Did this influence the case they built? The edited tapes which made the coughing louder? Who knows?
The first half had me a bit impatient, fun though it was, because the queasy, toxic, exploitative world of light-ent TV is almost too well evoked. Mr Evans could well trim some of the immersive pub-quizzery (though the electric voting lanyards we all wear have a vital role at the end). But Graham’s gift is always for curious, not unkindly observation of the way that people are. So the human story at its core intensifies, and saddens. Gavin Spokes as Ingram himself is marvellous: a dutiful soldier now deskbound in Procurement: not the brightest, a bit bumbling but entirely decent , worried by his wife and brother-in-law’s obsession. He is drawn into it and coached by his wife as the next family candidate (the session where he learns 90’s pop culture factoids is wonderful, involving both a Hilda Ogden cameo on the revolving ring round the arena and a rendering of Ian Gow’s speech against TV in Parliament (a sharp Graham point here about government-by-personality: topical again on the very day of Gordon Brown’s glum Today interview about why we didn’t love him enough).
The defending barrister’s speech is electric, and the winner’s downfall despite it intensely affecting. In our preent age of public shaming, it is salutary to remember that apart from him resigning his commission and military identity, the Ingrams family had their home attacked, children bullied, dog kicked to death and pet cat shot. Evans and Graham stage that last fact so sharply, shamingly and gently that you shudder. Britain can be vile. Doubt still hangs over the conviction: we all had to vote at the end, and on the opening night it was Not Guilty.
extended: http://www.cft.org.uk or 01243 781312 to 9 December