Theatre has often dramatised famous trials, most notably that of Oscar Wilde. But James Graham goes a step further in this highly entertaining play by resurrecting the famous case of a trio convicted of attempting to defraud the makers of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? through audience-based coughing. Graham, who already has Ink and Labour of Love running in the West End in London, uses the courtroom drama to explore both popular culture and the speculative nature of justice.
The play itself is full of kaleidoscopic razzmatazz. The bulk of it rehearses the prosecution and defence cases in the matter of Charles and Diana Ingram and their alleged accomplice, Tecwen Whittock: their crime was that of trying to cheat the system in 2001 in a famous TV programme. But Graham reminds us that we live in a quiz-obsessed culture.
The audience gets to play a form of pub quiz. We are reminded that ITV from the outset was built around game-shows such as Take Your Pick, Bullseye and The Price is Right, where the coveted prize was a vacuum cleaner. As in Privacy, Graham also – recalling one of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’s famous lifelines – asks the audience, so that we twice get to vote on whether we think the Ingrams were guilty or innocent.
Graham’s most astute point was that Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? was in every way a game-changer, in that it combined high drama with big money. It also bred a community of quizzers who became obsessed with the programme and cracked the code for getting selected: even this radically changed when the ITV programme chief decided the format favoured middle-class intellectuals and demanded more questions about pop music and TV soaps. But at the heart of the play lies the puzzle as to how Ingram, having lost two lifelines in the first couple of rounds, turned overnight into a million-pound winner.
The play leaves the final decision up to us; and frankly I was a bit suspicious of the way the second vote, after we had heard the case for the Ingrams’ innocence, was rushed through to prove the bulk of the audience had changed its mind. Graham’s argument that there is a danger of criminal justice turning into light entertainment is also built around a single, exceptional case. But he conveys well the ability of Ingram, then an army major, to play a role before the cameras of a bumbling eccentric. Just as in Ink he showed how the Sun thrived through its capacity to tap into popular taste, Graham also vividly captures TV’s realisation that we are a nation of quiz-maniacs.
Daniel Evans’s production matches exactly the play’s restless vivacity, Robert Jones’s design is cleverly built around a revolving, illuminated cube and most of the 12-strong cast play multiple roles. The exceptions are Gavin Spokes, who plays Ingram as a dedicated army man who stumbles reluctantly into the role of a public contestant and then warms to the task, and Stephanie Street, who shows his wife to be dedicated and systematic in her approach to the show. Both are excellent and there is strong support from Keir Charles as a variety of TV quizmasters, Sarah Woodward as an earnest defence counsel and Mark Meadows as both a very modern major-general and the Ingrams’ supposed helpmate.
Far from putting the nails in the coughing, Graham implies there is a case to be made for the Ingrams and that there is an increasingly thin line, which he himself cunningly exploits, between courtroom justice and showbusiness.
• At the Minerva theatre, Chichester, until 9 December. Box office: 01243 781312.