Trial by Laughter

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
Watermill Theatre and Trademark Touring
The Lowry, Salford

Trial by Laughter Credit: Philip Tull
Trial by Laughter Credit: Philip Tull
Trial by Laughter Credit: Philip Tull

After peddling gossip and parodying the powerful for years, Private Eye editor Ian Hislop seems to be trying to make a point about the wider social value of satire and humour. The Wipers Times, also co-written with cartoonist Nick Newman, showed how satire helped maintain the morale of the troops in World War I and now Trial by Laughter concerns the use of humour as a weapon in the struggle to preserve free speech.

In 1817, the powers that be decide bookseller, publisher and satirist William Hone (Joseph Prowen) has gone too far in criticising their excesses and pointing out that they are fat. Hone is arrested and forced to stand trial for parodying religion. Unable to afford legal counsel, Hone falls back on his abilities as a humorist and satirises the court proceedings. When this approach wins unexpected support from the jury, the political elite demand that Hone be re-tried for an unprecedented second and third time.

There are obvious parallels between the present day and the events depicted in Trial by Laughter. An aging prince petulantly awaiting his turn on the throne, a disaffected populace looking for trouble and hypersensitive political elites insulated from all criticism by the judicial structure they control. Yet the script for Trial by Laughter has a distancing effect. Hislop and Newman support their arguments on the value of satire with lot of detail that is historically valid but, for a modern audience, a bit dry. The detail, if included in a book or article, might be engaging even fascinating but used in the context of a life-or-death trial is not very dramatic.

Trial by Laughter tries to achieve a wide range of objectives and the effect is to create a play that feels like it is offering samples without ever digging deep below the surface. There are occasional satiric songs and displays of cartoons from the period along with an analysis of their purpose. Jeremy Lloyd, as the Prince Regent, behaves like a grotesque caricature from the cartoons come to life. Charles Dickens and the actual Grand Old Duke of York make cameo appearances. Yet it is never clear if the play is intended to provoke anger at an abuse of power, admiration for an individual who dared to stand up to political bullies or raise awareness of past events.

The effort to convey information or prove a point often clashes with the drama. The script establishes that imprisonment while awaiting trial wrecked Hone’s health. But the need to show how humour used effectively can undermine the unjust application of power requires Joseph Prowen to portray Hone as a roguish comedian, swaying the jury with his charm as much as the power of his arguments, rather than someone at death’s door.

With so much crammed into the play, director Caroline Leslie struggles to set a consistent tone. There is no sense of the terror arising from a merciless, out-of-touch ruling class setting out to crush resistance and the tension one associates with plays set in a courtroom is absent. Rather there is a bemused Alice in Wonderland environment: poking fun at the powerful but avoiding showing the consequences of their abuse of power.

Trial by Laughter may leave audiences much better informed but not necessarily entertained.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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