The Theatreguide.London Review
Noel Coward Theatre Spring 2018
James Graham has written a play about a very tiny footnote to British television history, and director Daniel Evans and a team of stage, lighting and video designers have dressed it in a divertingly flashy production.
But despite all the theatrical razzle-dazzle, your response may well be 'Who cares?' Play and production stumble at the basic level of making this story seem worth the telling.
In 2001 army Major Charles Ingram won a million pounds on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, but he never collected his prize. Instead he, his wife, and another man were prosecuted and convicted of conspiracy to defraud, the charge being that the other guy signalled the correct answers through some carefully timed coughing.
Act One of Graham's play presents the backstory and the case against Ingram (largely the videotape and the revelation that he and the others had manipulated the TV show's systems to get on in the first place), Act Two the defence's arguments (essentially that the prosecution forced dubious conclusions out of ambiguous evidence).
In reality the trio were found guilty but spared prison, but one of the production's gimmicks is that the theatre audience, using the same kind of hand-held devices as on the TV show, get to vote Guilty or Not Guilty at the end. (During previews, the generally very tight vote has leaned toward Not Guilty.)
Playwright, director and designers have filled the production with flashing lights, TV screens and amusing diversions. The dramatic frame of the play is the trial, but the courtroom keeps morphing into the quiz show ('Is that your final answer?') and back again.
A quick history of game shows on British television allows for rapid-fire pastiches of Bullseye, Let's Make A Deal and others, with actor Keir Charles doing wicked takes on Des O'Connor, Jim Bowen and Leslie Crowther on his way to a more extended parody of Chris Tarrant.
Graham's script makes occasional half-hearted gestures toward finding meaning in this, with questions about whether truth or reality can ever be agreed upon. But ultimately this is the story of one guy who either got cheated out of a million pounds or tried to cheat and got caught, and nothing in the real world or the play seems to have been affected by it.
We are told that Ingram had to resign from the army, but the other characters just fade away and life goes on, as indeed it has.
(The American quiz show scandal of the 1950s was a much bigger story, as practically every quiz on TV was shown to be rigged by the producers, who gave the answers and acting lessons to popular contestants, and it did affect its small universe, as quizzes disappeared from television for 40 years, replaced by 'game shows'. But even there who remembers any of it today?)
Keir Charles is amusing as Tarrant and the other hosts, Gavin Spokes makes a valiant attempt to inspire some sympathy for Ingram as a man, guilty or not, unhappily out of his depth, and Sarah Woodward carries much of the second act as the forceful defence barrister.
Those under twenty might find this lesson in ancient history informative, those who were around in 2001 might like having their vague memories jogged, and everyone can enjoy at least some of the razzle-dazzle around the edges. But there is less here than meets the eye.
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