Huw Brentnall’s “Quiz” comes to the Fringe, and the Surgeons Hall, from Keele University. The play can appear faintly dubious or strained at times and yet it is always interesting, which I suppose is half the battle. Brentnall may not have necessarily modelled “Quiz” upon David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 1992 sitcom “On the Air,” but the play reminded me most of this. “On the Air” is set in a 1950s television studio, during the hours leading up to the transmission of a live variety programme. The action in the studio is surreal and anarchic. In “Quiz,” we are on the set of a live television quiz programme called “Cream of the Crop.” We are the studio audience; they, the cast, are the presenter, the producer, the studio crew, and two contestants. As in “On the Air,” everything degenerates into exquisite mayhem.
Not all of this play is pleasing. The dialogue, with its swearing as thick and showy as plumage, registers the influence of the BBC sitcom “The Thick of It” a bit too obviously. It has its moments though – particularly when one of the contestants is called “a miserable fucking kettle.” “Quiz” is also a strange-looking production. As the demoralised game show host Steve, Lawrence Camm is carrying most of the weight. He becomes a tiny isolated figure, floundering about like Hamlet beneath a great gale of tragedy. Yet three of the other actors are barely used and two of them don’t even have speaking parts. This is rare to see in such a small production and it probably signifies an inept deployment of resources.
We start out with generic jokes at the expense of the game show format (i.e. one contestant gets vastly harder questions than the other one), but then the host, traumatised by his looming divorce and off his head on coke, pulls out a gun. Everyone, audience and all, are taken hostage. But this is the kind of television show which is lost in the outer regions of the airwaves. Steve’s ultimate wretchedness is that only a dozen people could be watching even his greatest humiliation.
“Quiz” is, rather paradoxically, something of a farce but it is never really a comedy. The engine of this play is actually suspense. The play wanders off very far from the jolly place where it had started and our suspense comes from seeing how or even whether it will return. The unusual ending at least, if nothing else, justifies the wait and the journey. The ending is in fact mind-boggling and the audience traipses out of the theatre in a daze. It also, however, slaps a label over the play confirming that it was really all nonsense.
I guess that I come down on the side of this play in the end. It is nicely surreal, ambitious in what it is trying to do, and interesting, simply interesting.