Difficult to think now that 22 years ago, not long after the euphoria of the new millennium was fading, many of us were becoming obsessed with the emerging scandal surrounding the weekly quiz show we were equally obsessed with – ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ The scandal of the ‘coughing Major’ (only he wasn’t the one coughing) and the subsequent fallout, trial and consequences, form the basis of one of those classically British crime mysteries, which are so beloved in this country. Add to that our enduring passion for quizzing, and you have a winning combination. Although justice was, arguably, seen to be done, in truth the jury is still out. As we subsequently discover.
So …. when ‘Millionaire’ was at the height of its fame back in 2001, it was hosted by the – almost – inimitable (I say this with all deference to Rory Bremner!) Chris Tarrant. A middle class couple, he a Bosnian-serving Major in the British Army, his wife and her brother, purportedly devised a cunning plan to win £1,000,000 by duping the production team and everyone connected with it. Utilising what were pretty ingenious means at the time (pagers??!), home made equipment plus pure hard graft and practice, they pulled it off. But it was the questionable coughing from audience members at the right answers that eventually raised the suspicions of the show’s crew. And that was when the whole thing blew up.
Written by James Graham, the play was first performed for a world premiere preview run at the Minerva Chichester back in November 2017, which was hugely successful, before transferring to London the following spring. It is therefore fitting that it should return to Chichester – this time to the eminently more suitable Festival Theatre – for an initial run, before embarking on a significant UK tour, and is playing to sell out audiences. Of course, in between, there has been the ‘Lockdown’ TV version, which was compulsive viewing when all we did was watch television and eat, with Michael Sheen as Tarrant.
This brand new production made it obvious that the auditorium was to represent a courtroom, doubling in other scenes as a ‘studio audience’ in a circular space just as in the original show. Genius! James Graham says he was inspired by the original book ‘Bad Show: The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major’ (Woffinden & Plaskett) which examines the evidence on both sides and asks new questions. There is much that was virtually unknown to the general public at the time, only the sensational binary ‘facts’ that are fed to us by the tabloids, and Graham was keen to present a new slant on the story in an entertaining way. Plus, his mission was also to demonstrate how the public can be manipulated when only given exclusively selective facts.
The result is indeed massively entertaining, a fun evening, with tropes and over-the-top scenes galore, however it is also a highly thought provoking piece and those of us who remember the affair, albeit veiled by the mists of time, may experience a change of mind by the time we head for the theatre exit.
We had all been handed our own lanyard with a little press button handset as we entered the auditorium. Much anticipatory chatter followed, when suddenly that familiar blast of noise which accompanied the show, almost jolted us out of our seats.
Congratulations to the composer and sound designers (Ben and Max Ringham). What followed was a veritable blitz of storyville activity, which was surprisingly revealing. Not only of the tale itself, but of the talents of the cast and crew. Of course our, in my view, unrivalled Rory Bremner is just the best choice to play Chris Tarrant. However it was Mark Benton who stole the show for me. Playing no fewer than 5 larger than life roles, each one for laughs of course, he had us in fits. The Ingrams were essentially, in contrast, fairly vapid roles, but played with sensitivity by Lewis Reeves and Charley Webb. And even they had the occasional light-hearted moment. But not many. They were also limited with the script, as there is little room to improvise, given this is a true story, and some essential facts DO have to be included, naturally.
The show is in two halves, split by the interval, the first giving us the background history of game shows, how ‘Millionaire’ was born (created by Paul Smith, brilliantly played by Stefan Adegbola). Reluctantly bought by ITV after much persuasion, it eventually became the most addictively watched game show, probably of all time to date. The play morphs into a courtroom drama, initially for the prosecution, interspersed with fast moving shifting of scenes, cleverly maintaining an even balance of Rory and Mark fun, those thought-provoking bits with the Ingrams, and the mysterious ‘syndicate’. Lots of Tarrant tropes ‘We don’t want to give you that!’ and ‘Final answer?’ from Bremner were hilarious touches. We were all given the chance to vote on one of the answers, and at the end of the first act, to enter a guilty or innocent vote. Gasps erupted.
The second half represented the opposing ‘facts’ which formed the case for the defence. Now this was where minds were possibly changing, but never fear – at the end of the show we were given another chance to vote, having seen all the ‘evidence’. The result was a little questionable. So can James Graham also be manipulating us? All I will say is that it was curiously similar to a somewhat controversial vote in this country not so long ago …..
The amazing energy of this production is a joy to behold, it’s an evening of pure nostalgic, indulgent pleasure. However, it also makes important points and observations about the stage management of ‘reality TV’, the huge pitfalls of creating stories which 20 years ago might involve a good deal of audience / participator manipulation, and probably still do. Scams and fake news have made cynics of us all, however the addiction many of us continue to have to media shows and sensationalism, together with an almost manic yearning to be part of the celebrity culture is depressingly persistent. Graham seems to asking us if we can not only believe what we see and hear, but is it REAL?
Go see this show for yourself, it practically slams you in the face with its boldness and relentless energy. You will have a bit of a retrospective into the past, and perhaps reflect on those glorious days of the original ‘Millionaire’ – that highly dramatic big money game show which had us all on tenterhooks at every turn.
Or, you could always just ‘phone a friend ?
Touring until 2 December 2023
2 hours and 20 minutes including interval
Reviewer: Gill Ranson
Photo: Johan Persson