Here at Screen Goblin HQ we’ve a slightly unhealthy obsession with the Coughing Major scandal from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, so when we heard that James Graham (This House, Ink) had written a new play on the topic, we cleared our diaries (and our throats) and took to the West End to co-review it.
While the events of that evening were widely seen in ITV documentary Major Fraud, along with the infamous phone call to Major Charles Ingram informing him that the show doubted the validity of his win, the play focuses on the unseen background, peeling back the curtain on Britain’s most incompetent criminals since Karen Matthews and that canoe bloke.
It begins with a potted history of the UK quiz show, showcasing Keir Charles’ ability to impersonate numerous old-school hosts with considerable Tarrant. We then meet Charles and Diana Ingram (who sound like the world’s most depressing royalist tribute act), along with Diana’s fishy-sounding brother Adrian Pollock, and ‘serial loser’ Tecwen Whittock. It’s hard to imagine a scandal with more ridiculously named characters, until one remembers that the canoe couple were called Darwin.
In keeping with the increasing trend for audience participation, we’re given a pub quiz to do, and the opportunity to vote, ‘ask the audience’ style, on the guilt (*coughs*) or innocence of the Major and his hapless platoon. The play manages to give an impressive two-sidedness to what is largely perceived to be a case so cut-and-dry it gives Tecwen Whittock’s throat a run for its money.
A kind of interactive version of 12 Angry Men, the courtroom is presented in parallel with the TV studio, reflecting the trial by media to which the three were subjected. The high-stakes, high-drama trend heralded by Millionaire’s sizeable prize inadvertently caused not just tension in the studio, but obsession from quizzers determined to beat the system.
What could have been a straight-up farce about a group of chaotic fraudsters ends up being surprisingly thought-provoking, even if it does manage some laughs along the way. The Ingrams are played with a degree of sympathy, perhaps acknowledging that the couple have suffered enough for their sins. And not just the whooping great fine (let’s call it a congestion charge) – we’re talking about having to live with Jade Goody and her boyfriend on Wife Swap. Seriously, it’s not as though they killed someone.
Stephanie Street as Diana has more warmth to her than the gaunt, pallid Lady Macbeth figure who looked like she was about to wretch out her own spleen during the show recording. And Gavin Spokes manages to bring some honour and affability to two-bit fraudster and poor man’s Paul Burrell, Charles.
Although our enthusiasm was all but guaranteed, the 50/50 empty/full theatre (which admittedly helped us hit the jackpot with a free upgrade to the Royal Circle) made it hard to escape the idea that this play is 15 years too late, and maybe James Graham’s fingers aren’t the fastest. Let’s be honest, within a week of Jeremy Clarkson taking over, the show’s going to be hit by so many scandals that the Coughgate affair becomes a harmless bit of trivia, and the name Tecwen Whittock just something that pops into our heads whenever we buy a pack of Strepsils, but with no memory of why.
But until then, and until they make a film about the Darwins (working title – Panamaniacs: The Origin of Stupid), our final answer is that Quiz is well worth a trip to the theatre. Unless you’ve got a cough. That might get confusing.
Quiz is on at the Noel Coward Theatre until 16 June.