Coughing Up A Million

By Richard Barber

This is the one about Charles Ingram, the so-called ‘coughing Major’, who somewhat implausibly stumbled his way to the ultimate prize on the tv quiz Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, apparently without knowing the answer to almost every question. Initially, at least. But then, it was alleged, guided to the correct answer by a judicious cough in the audience from either his wife, Diana, or an accomplice, he picked up a cool million.

Whether true or not, it’s a rattling good yarn and one that James Graham found irresistible. As the playwright de nos jours, Graham’s take is not to be ignored. He skewered life in parliament with his award-winning this house (2012) and then scored another hit last year with ink, his version of how Rupert Murdoch relaunched the Sun newspaper as a tabloid at the end of the 1960s.

His political comedy labour of love only recently closed at the noël coward to be replaced by – yes – Graham’s latest offering. Given the subject matter, it’s often a great deal of fun but, in truth, Quiz doesn’t quite match up to the playwright’s preceding three hits. The setting in designer Robert Jones’s revolving cube is either a courtroom or the Millionaire tv studio. It is no fault of this show but, for anyone who saw the superb recreation of the US news anchor’s studio in the national’s recent production of network,  the Quiz set inevitably feels a bit end-of-the-pier.

There’s plenty of audience participation, with a pub quiz as well as a keypad on which we’re invited to vote Guilty or not after the prosecution rests its case at the end of the first half, and again after the defence is wound up at the end of the second. it says something for Graham’s writing and a terrific turn by Sarah Woodward as the defence counsel that the two verdicts differed so wildly on the night I saw it. Not that the second verdict convinced Chris Tarrant, according to a signed piece he wrote in one of our national newspapers. But he is very entertainingly brought to life, with a series of well-observed moues and physical tics, by a hard-working Keir Charles, who also doubles as a series of tv quiz masters – Leslie Crowther, Jim Bowen, Des O'Connor – and a gurning warm-up man.

Gavin spokes, as a pudgy, slightly inadequate Major, brings pathos to the part and is well matched by his ambitious wife (a no-nonsense Stephanie street). in the end, though, I wasn’t much persuaded by the debate about the nature of truth. this doesn’t make me right, of course – but, in my opinion, Chris Tarrant hit the bulls-eye with his verdict.

Runs until 16 June at the Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2N: 0844-482 5140,