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‘You laugh aloud but it’s a damn serious piece’: QUIZ – West End ★★★★★

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Noel Coward Theatre, London – until 16 June 2018

Sometimes a West End transfer serves a play royally. At Chichester last year I enjoyed James Graham’s playful, thoughtfully mischievous treatment of the case of Major Charles Ingram, his wife Diana and the geeky Tecwen Whittock: the trio convicted of cheating-by-cough-code on ITV’s triumphantly tacky quiz Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. But some overdone pub-quizzery in the first half slowed it down (we have to answer questions like a studio audience, and vitally get to vote electronically at the end on their guilt). And I only gave it four.

But now in the West End it’s actually better, a real five-star piece. With some audience seats onstage and a hellish neon TV studio set, it makes a great gig: continually entertaining, with a shape-shifting cast conjuring up barristers, ITV executives and every popular hero from Hilda Ogden to Craig David, led by Keir Charles becoming bygone peak time horrors like Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther and Des O’Connor. And who is frankly and joyfully beyond-wicked as Chris Tarrant the host – mugging and squirming, a blond writhe of showy self-importance.

It has been tightened a bit, with the result that the two central characters, once more Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street, emerge still clearer. Spokes is a marvel as Ingram, Graham’s delicate writing establishing him from the start as a bit bumbling, a dutiful middle-aged military chap who cares for his job and his family; Street evokes quiz-mad Diana in her restless but kindly ambition (this is a service wife, remember: hampered by a lifetime of moves and postings and absences and economies). Their love story, a stick-to-it marriage, is a tribute; if they ever see the show, I cannot see them minding much.

And Graham’s serious points emerge still clearer too: the rise of “emo-tainment”, the class-conscious manipulation of the masses for profit, and above all the age – then evolving as the century turned, now extreme – of nosey, lipsmacking knee-jerk judgment of strangers: the age of Twitterstorms and whining, hostile identity-politics. Though you laugh aloud every few minutes, it’s a damn serious piece.

And yes, once again the audience voted guilty after the first act, paid attention to a fiery performance by Sarah Woodward as the defence barrister in the second – and voted not guilty. We chose to believe the hapless Ingrams over a vindictive and seemingly manipulative TV company. Apparently that happens most nights. Good.

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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