Writer: Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
Director: Caroline Leslie
Reviewer: Cathy Swaby
Witty satire alongside political commentary is an art form that has long been taken for granted in our modern media-heavy society. We are all accustomed to seeing Prime ministers, religious fanatics, Royals and orange faced presidents getting their fair share of ribbing from the press without so much as a gasp of horror from multi-generation observers and readers alike. Controversial as some political expression can be, the days of courtroom trials and treason are (mostly) a thing of the past, with humour being more a crux with which to tide us through political uneasiness and frustration.
This wasn’t of course always the case, and Trial by Laughter, written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, is the story of William Hone, a humorous political pamphleteer in 1817 who was famously found guilty of libel and blasphemy due to his beliefs. Private Eye’s Hislop (also well known for his regular slot on Have I Got News for You, another show which occasionally borderlines on libel of its own) and Newman have paid homage to the beginnings of press freedom, a nod to their own careers as writer and cartoonists of political mockery.
We see Hone, played by the excellent Joseph Prowen, trialled not once but 3 times and, when almost at death’s door through the strain of it all, he still holds strong to his anarchic opinions. His comrade and illustrator George Cruikshank (the baby-faced Peter Losasso), take on the judge and lawyers and soon realise that witty repartee can be a wonderful antidote to pomposity, winning the jury over.
The tasteful yet simple timber lined set smoothly transitions from courtroom to raucous booze-filled inn, with a glowing changing clock as centre stage and foggy windows giving the stage a Dickensian feel. We, the audience, are the faces of the jury with cleverly recorded voices booming and heckling from the courtroom sidelines and above our heads.
The minimal number of actors who play the various characters (Helen Antoniou plays not only Lady Hertford and Mary, but also Eliza Fenning with only what seems like seconds to spare between scenes) is testament to not only their individual talents as performers, but also Director Caroline Leslie’s ingenious way in which the scenes and contrasts of class merge bit by bit.
The highlight of the play, however, is the highfaluting Prince Regent (played by the affable Jeremy Lloyd) with his playful randy ways and fat jokes, becoming the funniest character, more as comedian than laughing stock which may not have been the writer’s intention. As a whole, the play is somewhat lacking in stick, with a scattering of the audience not returning to their seats after the interval.
We begin to empathise with Hone’s character, more in the second half than the first. Hone’s bereft wife Sarah, played by the androgynous and wonderful Eva Scott, and their eight children and counting, are left to wait at home while Hone fights his cause, returning to them sparingly before the next summons. Despite his poverty-stricken life, Hone is a generous man, who wins us over with his clumsy childlike buffoonery and playfulness with his sidekick Cruikshank.
As a courtroom comedy goes, this is perhaps a little too drawn out and the dialogue needs a bit more snappy wordplay as this is where it is strongest, but for those wanting a historically nostalgic evening in a historically nostalgic venue, this might just be the evening for you.
Runs until 24 November 2018 | Image: Phillip Tull