Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
Trademark Touring and Watermill Theatre
29 January 2019 to 02 February 2019
When Private Eye editor Ian Hislop first came across the 19thcentury writer, satirist and bookseller William Hone, he might fairly have thought he was looking in a 200-year-old mirror.
Both have used scurrilous humour to prick the pomposity of the age in which they live; and both have been hauled before the courts to answer for their ‘sins’. But whereas Hislop was facing financial ruin, Hone was confronted with transportation to Australia – in those days, as near to a death sentence as you might get, since he was an ailing man already living in poverty.
It is those three consecutive days of court appearances, during which an increasingly-vindictive Establishment hauled Hone before judge and jury on new charges, that form the basis of Trial by Laughter, the third in a series of comic plays by Hislop, and cartoonist friend Nick Newman.
It turns into the type of farce that would have graced the stage back in 1817, never mind the High Court. A commendable ensemble cast of 10 double up to twice as many characters, not least among them the easily-lampooned Prince Regent, the royal target of much of the satire of the day. It’s a dream role for any actor and Jeremy Lloyd fills the part, and the fat costume, handsomely.
Likewise Joseph Prowen, as Hone, is a hyperactive humourist, seldom still in two hours of a courtroom drama, that also contrives a cliff-hanging ending.
The play is at its funniest when it plays straight to its audience, cajoling them into believing they are participants in the rowdy courtroom scenes. But it’s rather more loaded with relevance to our own age, than with laughs.
The boundaries of humour; the responsibility of the media; even the use of gagging orders to protect the great and the not-so-good; are highly contemporary issues, and ones which Hislop and Newman indirectly shed light upon, even if through the prism of history.
Reviewer: David Upton