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James Graham

Jonathan Church Theatre Productions, Wessex Grove and Gavin Kalin Productions, Chichester Festival Theatre

The Lowry, Salford

October 23-28, 2023; 2hrs 20min

Tension abounds: Rory Bremner (Chris Tarrant) quizzes Lewis Reeves (the Coughing Major) in Quiz
Tension abounds: Rory Bremner (Chris Tarrant) quizzes Lewis Reeves (the Coughing Major) in Quiz

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Most people will know the background to the Coughing Major story, and the question mark over one of the very few winners of the exceedingly popular quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.

Could it really be true? Could a group of people barely known to one another succeed in a plot to grab £1 million in front of a huge TV audience at one of the most popular shows of the time?

Playwright and screenwriter James Graham has a string of successes across a wide range of stories behind him. His early play This House, both factual and hilarious, entertained at The National, exploring a government in tenuous power and in crisis in the 1970s. His gripping TV drama Sherwood took us back to the miners' strike of the 1980s and its continuing impact on modern communities.

Quiz takes us back to 1998 and the invention of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? – now franchised across the world. Based on the popularity of a traditional pub-quiz, but ramped up with razmataaz and psychological grabs of democracy, suspense, reward and loss, it brought the expressions "phone a friend" and "ask the audience" to life. At its height it seems as if everyone, and every demographic, watched it and equally importantly, everyone gauged their own potential to succeed. Even getting on the show cost participants a fortune in phone calls.

There were few winners, apart from the creators and owners. A claim that someone working in harness with a group of almost-strangers had won via cough signals enthralled the national imagination.

James Graham’s 2010 play became a three-episode, widely-watched TV miniseries. Does this touring revival add a further dimension or just provide a cosy night out with familiar territory and a few well-known faces?

Graham has the talent of being able to tell a clear story, and to instil a sense of suspense – even when the audience knows the real-life outcome. Will the network put on the show? Will the show be a success? Will anyone win £1 million? Did the major collude with others to steal £1 million? We know the answers to all of these except the last one, and most of us know the court decision, yet a sense of jeopardy keeps the audience on board throughout.

Rory Bremner, an impressionist rather than an actor is superb as Chris Tarrant, a role where voice and mannerisms are so vital. The casting and performance of the plotters humanises them without making them completely likeable. There is excellent ensemble work, both as a group offering some "common man" reflections, and when taking multiple individual roles, Comedian, actor and writer Sukh Ojla is a stand-out presence, gaining audience empathy and moving the story with absolute clarity.

The set, designed by Robert Jones, doubles both settings for questions and answers: the dramatic court room, and with the addition of sparkling lighting and ominous sound, the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? set – an accurate and engaging piece of work by designer, lighting and sound teams.

Audience members are given keypads to record their votes. There is some audience cynicism as to whether not the results displayed are real. The staff and excellent volunteers assure us they are. I have my doubts.

Some plays based on TV shows fail to add much to the TV experience, simply providing a nostalgic night out. That’s partly the point. With Quiz, nostalgia is celebrated, but there is an extra element to this production that keeps your mind open and your attention engaged, while making a few comments on the relationship between TV companies, the British public, fame, and truth.

A great entertaining night out at the theatre

More info and tickets here


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