Reviewed by Matt Forrest
Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️
The name William Hone won’t mean that much to most people, which is crying shame. For back in the early 1817 this was a man who campaigned tirelessly for civil liberties, sought reform in the many lunatic asylums, and highlighted the miscarriages of justice that blighted the judicial system. In addition Hone was an investigative journalist, satirical commentator and publisher who along with his friend, George Cruikshank a political cartoonist lampooned the ruling class of the day: that being the Regency government. So angered by Hone’s work the Prince Regent sought to have him prosecuted by any means possible.
So when it came to the story of William Hone, who better to tell it than Ian Hislop and Nick Newman. Both are champions of a free press, both have great form in sending up and holding to account politicians and world leaders through the magazine Private Eye. Newman is the cartoonist for the magazine and Hislop is the editor. In addition Hislop is no stranger to a libel case having faced several down the years. The two writers have reunited with director Caroline Leslie, with whom they worked with on their debut play The Wipers Times, to bring this intriguing story to the stage with their new production: Trial by Laughter.
The play opens with the Prince Regent and his (alleged) mistresses angered by their depiction at the hands of Hone and Cruikshank, so enraged is he that he orders his government flunkies to prosecute Hone. Hone is charged with blasphemy and arrested, falsely imprisoned and denied legal assistance. With only the support of Cruikshank, and his wife, Sarah, Hone mounts a defence and against all odds wins the trail. This really is the beginning of Hone’s troubles as he faces three criminal trials in as many days, which could see him imprisoned or deported to Australia. With the Regency’s relentless pursuit and Hone’s health deteriorating is this really a battle he can truly win?
There is a lot to admire about this production: Joseph Prowen is on great form as William Hone, playing him with a twinkle-in-the-eye and a great deal of righteous optimism that is gradually beaten out of him as the trials progress. Dan Mersh (playing numerous roles) is equally fine as Hone’s tormentor; Justice Ellenborough who plagues his foe at every turn and cannot hide is distain or prejudices for Foe. Peter Losasso plays Cruikshank, with a cheeky swagger clearly relishing his pun filled part. Whilst Eva Scott is also strong as Hone’s long suffering wife, who in spite of all their trials and tribulations she never loses faith in her husband.
Despite the subject matter being over 200 years old it relevance today cannot be understated as the play tackles such issues as freedom of speech and freedom of the press and measures how far governments and people of power will go to too stifle this, you only need to look at the recent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to see its relevance. It also tackles the weighty issue of what is fair game for a joke: politicians, religion, the ruling class, and when does a joke go too far and become offensive. These are clearly subject matters that Hislop and Newman feel passionately about and it shines through in their writing.
The production does have a few issues: there are some great gags in here which poke fun at modern day celebrity culture, even Prince Charles is on the receiving end of a roasting. Whilst the jokes come thick and fast, and are exceptionally crafted there is nothing here that will have you rolling in the isles, more a wry smile then a big belly laugh. Despite this being a trail there is little jeopardy for Hone and thus at times the more dramatic elements of the paly can feel a little flat.
Overall this a fascinating, entertaining tale that needs to be told and deserves its platform, it’s worth a watch but you can’t help feel there is something missing.
Trail by Laughter is on the Lowry until 2nd February, tickets available here.