Trial by Laughter
Reviewed – 24th September 2018
“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.
Reviewed by David Woodward
Photography by Philip Tull
Trial by Laughter
Watermill Theatre until 27th October then touring
Previously reviewed at the Watermill