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Trial by Laughter

by on 19 February 2019

Laughter or Treason?

Trial by Laughter

by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman

Trademark Touring and Watermill Theatre at Richmond Theatre until 23rd February, then on tour until 9th March

Review by Mark Aspen

Huzzah, huzzah! Hislop and Newman’s latest historical docu-drama,Trial by Laughter has all the robust rumbustiousness that we have come to accept as the quintessence of the Regency period. Indeed, it is a fitting caricature of a highly caricaturible period and centres around the famous caricaturist George Cruikshank, or more specifically his promoter and collaborator William Hone. Who? I hear you say. Hone, a writer, satirist and Fleet Street bookseller, is undeservedly much less well known than Cruikshank. Hone is often described as “the greatest champion of press freedom”, for his court battles against censorship, where he was victorious in defending freedom of speech against the powerful interests of the day.


In fact there were three court cases on three consecutive days just before Christmas 1817, three separate trials, which took place in The Guildhall before special juries, and in all of which he was found not guilty and acquitted. Unfortunately, in Trial by Laughter, we are put on trial by having the same play three times over. The writing of the play does not stir the same empathy for the protagonists, nor have the gentle humour, of Hislop and Newman’s earlier historical piece, Wipers’ Times.

Notwithstanding a somewhat weaker script, the cast of Trial by Laughter attack the drama with huge dynamism and such palpable glee that it sweeps these misgivings aside. It is carried vigorously away by a score by Nick Green whose Baroque style draws on Thomas Attwood, who was a chamber composer for the Prince Regent. Indeed, Trial by Laughter is leavened by musical interludes sung by the cast, in the style of Regency “glees and catches”, ribald rounds loaded with double entendres (not that the text is in any way short of double entendres). For instance, the catch The Tree of Life straddles biblical allusion and suggestive satire: your imagination can unravel the entendre.

Herein lies the basis for Hone’s prosecution. He had published political parodies in the Reformists’ Register, which were illustrated by Cruikshank. These squibs not only exposed the corruption in the establishment of the day, but also ridiculed their scandalous “private” lives, including the sexual incontinence of the Prince Regent. Hone’s biggest mistake was to use the then familiar patterns the Bible, the Prayer Book and the liturgy of the church as the template for his satires. This gave a very sharp hook on which the prosecution could hang its case, and he was charged both with seditious libel and with blasphemy.


Designer Dora Schweitzer’s set has the calculated proportions and precision of Regency cabinetwork, in a sedate “solid mahogany” street façade, complete with a practical town clock, which adds to the state of urgency. It is a metaphor for the society. Behind those doors all is far from sedate, including in the royal court. Jeremy Lloyd portrays the Prince Regent as a shallow indecorous fop. The part is played big in many senses, for Prinny is surrounded by his mistresses, in a pneumatic ménage à trois with Lady Hertford and Lady Conyngham, played by Helena Antoniou and Eva Scott respectively. This is caricature writ big and all three have great fun in a continued scatological and sexual romp. Even children’s games are voluptuously hijacked into use as sexual horseplay by this plush trio.

Through the long-suffering courtiers and palace staff stride Baron Ellenborough, the Lord Chief Justice, and Viscount Sidmouth, the Home Secretary. They are intent on using the Prince Regent’s vanity to lever up the charges against Hone and use the courts to silence his criticisms. Sidmouth had already suspended the right of Habeas Corpus, hence securing a trail and two retrials of Hone on three successive days was a straightforward matter. Dan Mersh’s Ellenborough is a bluff character, a hard man, ruthless in getting his way, whereas Phillip Edwards plays Sidmouth as a manipulator, insinuating his own way, but equally effective.


The court of law is convened in The Guildhall, where we, the audience, in a nod to the metatheatrical, are included in the noisy crowds inside the court (if not in the mob of thousands outside), enhanced by some clever stereophonic effects by sound designer, Steve Mayo, which plant virtual hecklers in our midst. The court is depicted as, to say the least, biased. Most bigoted is the judge himself, Mr Justice Abbott, a wickedly gimlet-browed Nicholas Murchie. Dirty tricks even extend into the gaol, where a lithe seductress, Mary Oliver, is sent to compromise Hone, in a delicious cameo for newcomer Rosa Hesmondhalgh.


The open matter-of-factness of William Hone, which borders on the naïve, is energetically depicted by Joseph Prowen, as a passionate and earnest young man, a David bold (and foolish) enough to take on the Goliath of the state machine. Hone has the self-belief, and lack of cash, to mount his own defence. He is spurred on by the devil-may-care Cruickshank, played with verve by Peter Losasso, who embodies the relentless energy of the caricaturist who incites Hone to keep going, despite his exhaustion to give six or eight hour long defence speeches. The increasingly ill Hone uses a good natured humour to win over the jury on each occasion, in spite of being counselled by the much more grounded William Hazlitt to be wary of using jokes in a court of law, “Wit is the salt of conversation, not the meat”.

Jeremy Lloyd doubles as Hazlitt, well differentiating the urbane literary critic with Ellenborough, the head-on Cumbrian. Other effective doubling comes from Nicholas Murchie, who returns as an exasperated Frederick, Duke of York, and Eva Scott who plays the pivotal role of Sarah, Hone’s loyal and very resourceful wife. Sarah is very much the rock-solid foundation of the ever increasing Hone household. Initially with little sympathy for his, as she sees it, self-imposed incarceration, it is she who eventually gathers the evidence that leads to his third acquittal.


Prosecuting council, Weatherill, played with tenacity by Lewis Bruniges, plugs away at the blasphemy angle. Hone argues that he is using the sacred texts as models in style because they are familiar, and that he is parodying that style in his satires, without any intention of being disrespectful to the name of God. It cuts little ice with the lawyers. However, in the third trial Lord Ellenborough himself takes the judge’s bench, and Hone is able to bring out evidence, uncovered by Sarah, that Ellenborough’s own father, Edmund Law, had used a similar literary device … when he was Bishop of Carlisle.


There is a nice comment, pointed at our modern world, from Hazlitt when a youth gets Cruickshank to sketch him with Hone, as a sort-of early nineteenth century selfie, “ah, well there is unlooked-for fame”. Director Caroline Leslie’s boisterous high-octane knock-about makes for entertaining fun in twenty-first century Britain, but one should feel some sympathy for the “villains” of the piece when one reflects that in 1817 that the bloody aftermath of a bloody revolution across the Channel continued, that a revolution had lost us a valuable colony in America and that a British Prime Minister had been assassinated five years before. Revolution was in the air. There was an edginess with the instability of politics that perhaps chimes two centuries later. In an age of belief, blasphemy was an unspeakable offence against the Almighty, whereas it is actively encouraged in politics today. It is ironic that Richmond Council has just voted to prevent people peacefully praying in silence outside of an abortion clinic within half a mile of Richmond Theatre. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are just as under threat as they were 202 years ago.

Blasphemy may be old-hat here and now … but try that out in Raqqa! A sobering thought even for the less than temperate protagonists in Trial by Laughter. Hislop and Newman’s new play makes an entertaining and fun evening, but gives much food for thought, a Prince Regent’s banquet load of food for thought. Huzzah, huzzah!

Mark Aspen
February 2019

Photography by Philip Tull

From → Drama, Reviews

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