In one way Pub Quiz is Life follows a familiar pattern: a hopeless pub quiz team is bullied into shape by a young man resentful of the teachers who never recognised his potential and who now win the quiz with monotonous regularity. Near the end of the play the former losers come out on top in the quiz Grand Final. Interestingly the next production at Hull Truck is a revival of Up’n’Under, possibly the prototype of the genre.
However, Richard Bean’s writing always has a gritty edge to it and the zero-to-hero plot co-exists with dramas based around murder, drug-dealing, debilitating illness and euthanasia, with passionate side-swipes at the National Health Service and the war in Afghanistan. The result is a play that combines farcical goings on in the pub, serious debate of major issues and a story-line that lurches between realism and melodrama.
Lee, an ex-soldier, has returned from Afghanistan. His father Bunny, crippled with Multiple Sclerosis, is part of a quiz team that usually consists only of himself and Woody, the local drug-dealer who, incidentally, supplies Bunny with the cannabis that brings him some relief. Lee joins the team and recruits Melissa who is working on the regeneration of Hull and brings an expensive education to the quiz.
By the interval there are hints of the dark side of the play (Bunny is tormented by the memory of his wife’s suicide, the Melissa-Lee romance is clearly heading for unpleasant consequences, etc.), but the tone is generally light and much of the dialogue very funny. In particular, Mabel the landlady, played with hard-bitten gusto by Sarah Parks, is the perfect parody of those pub question setters who think the quiz is about them, not the questions.
The second act, however, sees a transformation. Lee is faced with issues around his father’s care and his children’s education that could be solved by working for Woody and his problems increase when his father is refused treatment with beta-interferon. The play is rather fragmented as a result, although Marc Bolton’s performance as Lee, all buttoned-up intensity, does much to hold it together.
David Hargreaves is both moving and amusing as the wheel-chair-bound father, but the other characters are less convincing. Adrian Hood is a delight as the drug baron who just wants to be a stand-up comedian, but a loveable drug-dealer sits oddly with serious examination of moral issues – it’s not Damon Runyon, after all. Rachel Dale and Esther Hall complete an effective ensemble of six, but have rather stereotypical two-dimensional characters to deal with, especially Hall’s posh southerner who claims that it’s a good thing there’s no fishing now because it was smelly and dangerous.
Gareth Tudor Price’s briskly imaginative production makes good use of Foxton’s two-level set (pub below, flat above) to cover a range of locations: from a seedy drug-pusher’s pad to the plush front seat of Mr. Big’s Range Rover.