Writers: Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
Director: Caroline Leslie
Reviewer: Maggie Constable
For and evening of sharp wit, incredibly relevant issues and, yes, laughter, there is no better place to be this week than Milton Keynes theatre for Trial by Laughter. William Hone’s true story has proved to be a gift to partners in crime, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, both of Private Eye fame.
Hone is a little-known hero and fighter for freedom of speech who, in 1817, was accused of blasphemy and seditious libel against none other than the Prince Regent, the government and Tory establishment. Using as his vehicle parodies of The Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, amongst other sections of the Church of England liturgy, Hone bitingly satirised what he perceived as the immense excesses and equally immense egos of those he targeted, in particular, the libidinous Prince Regent. At his first court appearance, the pamphleteer and ardent social reformist was acquitted. Dismayed and irked by the result, the Crown took Hone to trial twice more in as many days in a legally questionable move. In dire financial straits, Hone was obliged to defend himself, assisted by his cartoonist partner, George Cruikshank. Despite the strain on Hone and his fast-failing health, he relied upon his greatest skill, that of making people laugh. Using his wit, in every sense of the word, he was able to persuade the jury to acquit him in the subsequent two trials. An incredible feat and certainly a story worthy of the telling. Hislop and Newman do it justice.
Joseph Prowen as William Hone, is thoroughly engaging. He really brings out the youthful, sometimes, naïve, optimism of the man who is prepared to risk all, including his large family, for his beliefs. He shows us Hone’s development from nervous defendant to confident and humorous defender. A totally believable performance.
Peter Losasso brings us the brutal cartoonist and Hone’s legal adviser, George Cruikshank. He does so with panache and dynamism, convincingly giving us the man who only seems to worry about where his next drink will come from and what his next cartoon will look like. He has a natural comedic talent.
Eva Scott plays the roles of mistress to the Prince Regent, Lady Conyngham, as well as that of Sarah Hone. She manages the contrast between the two characters well and is particularly effective as the beleaguered wife who has to look after their eight children on a shoe-string.
Nicholas Murchie’s Justice Abbott is superbly sour-faced but Dan Mersh is a tour de force as the angry, harsh Lord Chief Justice, Lord Ellenborough, who is determined to see Hone imprisoned or worse, even before the trial begins. Mersh also portrays the critic, William Hazlitt, who appears to have a saying for every event and is often negative, but comes across as a likeable character.
Jeremy Lloyd is wonderfully diverting as the egotistical, licentious and corrupt Prince Regent. His last scene is hilarious, but no spoilers here.
.Dora Schweitzer’s clever set moves effortlessly from the courtroom to the royal boudoir to a public house whilst the clock hands whizz around to remind us of just how much Hone had to deal with in only three days. The glass and wood panelling hide benches and other legal apparatus, all deftly shifted. Sound designer Steve Mayo gives us feel of the crowded public galleries in court with the disgruntled shrieking and cheering of the oft outraged onlookers.
Hislop and Newman know all about being sued and this is clear in the writing: much of what happens feels very contemporary. If Hone was around today, he would surely be an adept thorn in the side to the establishment, much as Private Eye has oft been.
This is a pacy piece of theatre which draws the audience in, educating and amusing it in equal measure.
Runs Until 2 March 2019 and on tour | Image: Phillip Tull