“Joseph Prowen takes the lead with committed intensity”
If ever there were a time to champion free speech and the right of the press to hold the powerful up to mockery, then this is it. Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s ‘Trial by Laughter’ tells the story of bookseller and satirist William Hone’s epic battle against government censorship in 1817. Hone faced not one but three trials for both libel and blasphemy.
This is personal for Ian Hislop, who as editor of Private Eye is purportedly the most sued man in English legal history. The two playwrights’ new work is strong on history and courtroom drama. It’s also something of a ‘ripping yarn’– a fast-paced funny story about how Hone used ridicule to get himself out of legal hot water.
Joseph Prowen takes the lead with committed intensity. He’s well-matched by Peter Losasso as the celebrated caricaturist George Cruikshank, who created nearly 10,000 vicious satires and illustrations during his long career. Both bring youth and likeability to their roles, Prowen most so when he is driven to nervous exhaustion at the end of three successive trials in three days.
Nicholas Murchie delivers a hilarious parody of legal pomposity as Justice Abbott and like several other members of the cast of eight, doubles several other roles including the ‘grand ole’ Duke of York. Dan Tetsell (previously seen in Hislop and Newman’s ‘Wipers Times’) has splenetic menace as Hone’s other judge, Lord Ellenborough, whose unsuccessful attempts to direct the jury were followed by his death soon after.
Helena Antoniou, Eva Scott and Jeremy Lloyd make up a trio of what looks like Blackadder-inspired comedic clowning in their scenes as the Prince Regent and his favourites. Eva Scott has an important ‘straight’ role, too, as Hone’s wife Sarah.
An ingenious set by Dora Schweitzer makes the most of the Watermill’s intimate stage, switching from Regency courtroom to palace in a matter of seconds by using some clever projections and multi-level cupboards, doorways and windows. As Hone wins the mob over with his wit and mockery, simple but effective sound design from Steve Mayo incorporates the audience into the action.
There are some pleasing period musical interludes by Tom Attwood throughout the show. One or two seemed just a little uncertain on the opening night of this packed production. The play ends with a slightly laboured scene pointing up Hone’s place in history.
This is a cracking play, both historically-rooted and completely topical, and well worth a trip to Newbury.
“subtle layering of shadows and downlights gave a real boost to the overall gothic and insidious feel of the play”
Tim Luscombe’s take on Turn of the Screw is a lesson in well considered casting and tight production values. From the outset there is a distinct sense of unease, begun with the skewed set frame and followed through into the opening scene of increasingly uncomfortable conversation between the two most prominent cast members – Carli Norris as The Governess and Annabel Smith as ‘Mrs Conray’. What follows is a twisting tale of death and mystery told to examine the concept of what it is to be truly haunted.
Carli Norris is a solid leading lady, flowing well between the nuances of a demure and well intentioned governess to the unhinged but doting companion of two apparently disturbed children.
Annabel Smith was quite perfect in jumping between the aspects of her character, which could have easily become a messy portrayal of a girl at different points of her life but her performance was absorbing and very precisely defined. She was equally irritating, masterful, childish and cruel, and instrumental in holding together the leaps of the narrative between past and present with impeccable physical cues as well as her dialogue.
Michael Hanratty, billed initially as merely ‘The Man’ also turns out a well thought performance that made uncomfortable watching if only because his convincing childishness felt decidedly squeamish from an adult player – which of course was the point a lot of the time. Maggie McCarthy tied up the cast in a somewhat stereotypical role of good-old-working-class-woman-of-certain-age that was predictable but nonetheless well delivered.
It was no surprise to see a long list of classical theatre credits after the name of Matt Leventhall, the Lighting Designer, who deserves special mention. Although there are obvious bangs and jumps and sudden lights out moments to keep the audience jumping, the more subtle layering of shadows and downlights gave a real boost to the overall gothic and insidious feel of the play throughout to the point that one felt both relieved and over exposed when it was time for the house lights to come back up.
It really is all very well done, which makes me regret having to say that I think this might be a production recommended for genre fans only. I haven’t read Turn of the Screw, nor seen any of its Hollywood outings and I’m left with the feeling that this production was brought together by a team who adore the source material but have failed to make it entirely accessible via this play alone. Nothing in the telling is unclear, however. The premise and the action and the prescribed twist are all quite plainly there but it all fell a little bit flat, taking something of a downward turn not long into the second act.
I feel I was missing something, some greater understanding of the story or perhaps more of the time that it comes from. I love a period drama, but there needs to be something fundamentally relatable to really bring all of the stiff old fashioned costumes and storm tossed country estates to life for me, and I suspect that had I read the Henry James novella I might have found it easier to immerse myself in this play. As such I’m not sure in summary if I was disappointed in the production, or disappointed in myself for not being more well prepared to enjoy it!