DramaReviewSouth East

Trial by Laughter – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Writers: Ian Hislop and Nick Newman

Director: Caroline Leslie

Reviewer: Alice Fowler

William Hone is the free speech hero you have probably never heard of: an unassuming bookseller and publisher who, in 1817, was taken to court by the Regency government on a charge of seditious libel and blasphemy. His crime? Poking fun at the Tory government, the monarchy and the church.

It’s easy to see why Ian Hislop – no stranger to libel trials himself – might be drawn to Hone. With fellow writer Nick Newman – with whom he created recent hit The Wipers Times – Hislop depicts Hone as a brave and decent man whose only real crime is daring to have a sense of humour.

Joseph Prowen stars as a dashing, likeable Hone, while Jeremy Lloyd has fun as the libidinous Prince Regent, cavorting with a pair of titled mistresses. Much of the action takes place in a courtroom, where Hone is charged with libelling the church and state. When he wins round the jury and is acquitted, his accusers respond by trying him the next day, and the next.

We live, of course, in an age of ‘fake news’, where the murder of journalists is sadly commonplace and free speech is threatened across the globe. Naturally, then, we should be on William Hone’s side. Yet somehow this production never quite lifts off. Hone is clear that his best defence is to make the jury laugh. Somehow, though, this play rarely has quite the same effect on us, the audience.

As in The Wipers Times, characters too often seem undeveloped. Amid the scale and emotion of The Great War, Hislop and Newman could largely get away with it. Here, however, in the confines of a courtroom, this limitation matters more.

The cast of the Trademark Touring and Watermill Theatre production do their best. Peter Losasso raises spirits as Hone’s partner in crime, the political cartoonist George Cruikshank. Dan Tetsell is suitably imposing as Lord Ellenborough, the Lord Chief Justice who, when the court does not deliver the verdict he desires, decides to try the case himself.

There are plenty of historical insights to learn along the way: the fear of revolution which haunted Georgian England, for example. France is still ‘the F-word’. We can all learn much from William Hone – a champion of civil liberties, unafraid of parodying the rich and powerful. It’s just a shame we couldn’t laugh more ourselves along the way.

Runs until 3 November 2018 | Image: Philip Tull

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