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Review: Trial By Laughter, by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, New Wolsey Theatre, until Nov 10

PUBLISHED: 18:11 07 November 2018

Joseph Prowen as William Hone and Nicholas Murchie as Justice Abbott in Trial by Laughter Photo: PhilipTull

Joseph Prowen as William Hone and Nicholas Murchie as Justice Abbott in Trial by Laughter Photo: PhilipTull


Within minutes of this witty and revealing play starting, you can see what attracted Private Eye’s Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, to write this extraordinary piece of professional biography.

Timeless political satire Trial By Laughter by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman  Photo PhilipTullTimeless political satire Trial By Laughter by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman Photo PhilipTull

Journalists love stories about journalists and the free press and this story of Georgian pamphleteer William Hone and his mate cartoonist George Cruikshank is the ultimate journalist story.

Hone was the Ian Hislop of his day while Cruikshank was the 19th century’s Nick Newman, together they satirised self-serving governments and pricked the inflated egos of out-of-touch royalty.

In 1817 Hone became a cause celebre when he was arrested and tried for libel three days in a row. Without being hampered by a defending counsel, he entertained his way to an acquittal at each trial. It was a marathon but it was a heroic tour-de-force performance in the face of a very hostile establishment.

In their programme notes Hislop and Newman, who penned the equally entertaining and satirical The Wipers Times, described the play as The Madness of King George meets Crown Court and this turns out to be a rather accurate description of the performance.

We don’t see George III but we do get to meet his rather dissolute son the Prince Regent who spends his time playing childish games with his married mistresses while his ministers seek to silence Hone who is diligently goading the populace to pour scorn on their so-called betters.

Much of the dialogue from the trial comes from court records or from Hone’s own memoirs, so unlike Wiper’s Times, the play does feel a little dialogue heavy at times, but it is delivered with such style and panache by the small, hat-swapping company that the pace never drops nor does the humour feel forced. Bursts of ribald folk-song also lend the play atmosphere and help break up some long speeches.

The action is played out against an imaginatively constructed panelled set which can be configured into a court-room, prison cell or a packed pub. William Hone is dynamically portrayed by Joseph Prowen while Dan Tetsell growls impatient legal threats as Lord Judge Ellenborough.

Trial By Laughter provides food for thought as well as an atmospheric look back at the foundations of modern satire.

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