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Watermill Theatre - Trial by Laughter

20th September to 27th October 2018

Review from The Guardian.

Private Eye team's tribute to embattled satirist

The ‘blasphemous’ 19th-century pamphleteer William Hone is at the sharp end of destructive libel action in Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s drama

three stars
Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, editor and lead cartoonist of Private Eye respectively, have developed a flourishing sideline in plays about forgotten heroes of speaking abuse to power. Their story of a British satirical newspaper printed in the first world war trenches, The Wipers Times, moved from Newbury’s beguiling Watermill theatre to a UK tour and an impending second London run. The same production team now launches from the Watermill another fascinating excavation from the satire archives, which, involving an editor and a cartoonist, comes very close to the day job for Hislop and Newman.

William Hone, a provocative pamphleteer, was subjected, in 1817, to a menacing legal triathlon. Tried for “blasphemous libel” – after publishing a series of spoofs of the Church of England liturgy – he was forced by penury to mount his own defence, assisted by the caricaturist George Cruikshank. Irritated by Hone’s acquittal, the crown went, sub-legally, for a “best of three”, dragging him to court twice more in 48 hours on escalating charges, which Hone rebutted in a style that might be called standup comedy if he had not been almost falling over from ill-health.

Structure and staging are conservative, the use of expositional scenes intercutting courtroom action recalling Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. But, as Hislop and Newman know from their own fights with libel law and the taste police, the subject is hotly contemporary in a culture where definitions of offence and blasphemy are regularly tested. As is still frequently the case in repressive regimes, Hone was accused of offending God when his real sin was to have mocked a top man: in this case, the gluttonous, rutting Prince Regent.

Hislop and Newman have handsomely expanded Trial By Laughter from a BBC Radio 4 afternoon drama, and theatre allows director Caroline Leslie to add an interactive dimension. When the Prince Regent insists that the things written about him are “not funny”, the audience reaction belies him. And officers of the court intermittently order us not to laugh at Hone’s jokes – a novel dynamic in a stage comedy.

Joseph Prowen’s Hone, so slight and pale that he would not cost a cartoonist much scribble, compellingly presents both the strengths and weaknesses of a man prepared to risk his eight children starving to practise free speech. As the wife who sometimes understands why her husband does this, Eva Scott is equally nuanced, while also more broadly playing one of the Regent’s mistresses. Dan Tetsell enjoyably doubles, sometimes seconds apart, the viciously corrupt Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough and the critic William Hazlitt.

As the play’s 19th-century London increasingly comes to resemble, in its repression of dissent, Soviet-controlled eastern Europe, the work it most brings to mind is, unexpectedly, Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia trilogy. Just as Stoppard’s plays movingly rescued from neglect the revolutionary exiled Russian thinker and journalist Alexander Herzen, so Trial By Laughter leaves the audience in awe at the courage and good humour of Hone. This is an engaging and educational tribute to a remarkable figure, whom princes, politicians and stranglers of free speech in Britain and beyond should be very glad is no longer around.


Review from The Telegraph.

A David-v-Goliath celebration of dissent

four stars
Mock not, lest ye be judged, imprisoned, deported. The latest playwriting excursion by Ian Hislop – Britain’s scoffer-in-chief – and his collaborator Nick Newman, who works with him at Private Eye, supervising the cartoons, re-enacts the remarkable (and too little known) story of William Hone (1780-1842). This penner and pedlar of satires was dragged to court on three consecutive days in a bid to punish, silence and break him for his perceived outrages.

The title – and Hone’s David-v-Goliath-esque use of slingshot wit to resist the overbearing judicial onslaught – invites our laughter. Yet the story is a chilling instance of the lengths to which even relatively enlightened authorities have gone to crush dissent. And 200 years on, amid a censorious climate of offence-taking, how much of the freedom of expression for which Hone fought remains?

Hislop and Newman – who had a hit 10 years ago with A Bunch of Amateurs (that genial Britflick about a Hollywood actor going mad in an English am-dram Lear) and whose admirable theatrical tribute to that plucky Trenches rag The Wipers Times is now going great guns on tour – don’t press home the topicality.

Taking place in 1817 – the last years of George III (and the Regency) – the action has one foot in the realm of Blackadder the Third. Indeed the opening scene in the royal apartments (cue a flourish of Handel) makes plain that it’s the contempt that Hone and fellow mischief-maker George Cruikshank, cartoonist extraordinaire, poured – with scatological and bawdy relish – on the debauched Royal that prompted the state’s retaliatory prosecution nay persecution.

“In one of his publications I was likened to a whale and indeed he called me the Prince of Whales,” Jeremy Lloyd’s busting-at-the-seams Prince Regent huffs, while his mistress urges “Georgie-Porgie” back to bed. “That’s not funny, is it?”

HHis Lord Chief Justice – Lord Ellenborough – has spied a means to haul the miscreant over the coals: a published parody of the Book of Common Prayer, poking fun at the ruling elite (“I believe in George, the Regent Almighty, maker of New Streets and Knights of the Bath” etc). Not only traducing the good name of the Prince and his ministers, he has also “offended” against “Almighty God”.

What ensues is a Groundhog Day of charges for impious blasphemy, seditious libel, and so on, the offending text in question changing each time and Hone’s extemporised defence required to shift too. In real-life, the valiant satirist – played with winning, teeming-brained zest by Joseph Prowen – had to defend himself, worn down by related incarceration, for up to eight hours, citing precedents, urging points obvious and arcane.

The courtroom proceedings (based on contemporary accounts of the trials) are niftily condensed, with flashback vignettes to ensure things don’t get too dusty, and fleeting cameos by Hazlitt and even Dickens. What’s striking is that what should get more irksome acquires potency through sheer numbing repetition: after each victory there’s relieved carousing in the tavern, then a sinister, Kafka-esque knock on the door.

The system diminishes itself and the little man grows in stature as they throw the book at him and he flings it back. You might complain that Hone’s success lies in his ability to play to the gallery (and woo the jury) through his humour – and Caroline Leslie’s production is very reliant on recorded cheers and hoots to simulate that pivotal outcry. Yet our keen sense of identification with this increasingly exhausted individual (nicely offset by a puppyish Peter Losasso as Cruikshank) is unmistakable.

You have to wonder, though, whether, in today's social-media age, that honest, jeering “mob” would be the guarantor of freedom or, in fact, its nemesis.


Review from the British Theatre Guide.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s witty and cleverly crafted Trial By Laughter follows the misadventures of the satirist and impoverished bookseller William Hone who in 1817 was put on trial for seditious libel and blasphemy.

He had the courage to goad the Prince Regent and the Tory government with parodies of the Ten Commandments and The Common Book of Prayer, poking fun at their excesses, much to the delight of the public who crowded the court to watch the proceedings.

Hone is assisted by the talented, destitute cartoonist George Cruikshank, whose subversive drawings portrayed the Prince (Jeremy Lloyd) as a pompous, fat philanderer playing childhood games with his two mistresses.

He has the ordeal of facing three trials on three consecutive days, so determined was the establishment to ensure that Hone would be found guilty and transported to Australia never to return again.

Joseph Prowen brings an outstanding crusading zeal to the role of Hone who defends himself despite suffering from mental and physical exhaustion from the rigours of the trial.

Peter Losasso is charming as the caricaturist Cruikshank, who relishes every pun and Hone’s fervour. They have decided that the only way that they are going to influence the jury and win the cases is by making them laugh.

Prosecuting counsel Sidmouth (Philippe Edwards) is no match for Hone and the dour judge Justice Abbott (Nicholas Murchie) is infuriated at the first acquittal.

He is subsequently replaced by the ruthless Lord Chief Justice, Lord Ellenborough (Dan Tetsell) who is determined to gain a successful guilty verdict at all costs.

Hone’s long-suffering wife, strongly played by Eva Scott, is enlisted to help with her husband’s research. She also doubles as Lady Conyngham, one of the Prince’s mistresses, together with Lady Hertford (Helena Antoniou) in a deliciously funny bedroom scene that could be straight out of pantoland.

Dora Schweitzer’s inventive set of wooden panels reveals lawyer’s desks, tavern tables and a large projected clock that travels back and forward in time is most effective. As is Steve Mayo’s soundscape with voices from the cheering crowd that echo round the theatre as they heckle the court proceedings.

This is a fast-paced production filled with humour and laughter and is assuredly directed by Caroline Leslie.

It has an important message about freedom of speech and is as relevant today as it was 200 years ago.

Another winner from the pen of Hislop and Newman and the Watermill’s vibrant, highly enjoyable production.


Review from The Times.

Satirist’s struggle gives Hislop chance to Hone his storytelling talents

three stars
It’s easy to figure out what excited Ian Hislop and his writing partner Nick Newman about the story of William Hone. Hone’s battles with the corrupt Regency government did much for the fight for press freedom.

Yet he is an obscure figure now: so little known, in fact, that even the editor of Private Eye had never heard of this satirist, publisher and bookseller who fought off three libel cases against him in three consecutive days in December 1817. Hislop and Newman (a cartoonist and scriptwriter) only came across his story after a pointer from the then controller of BBC Two, Janice Hadlow, when they had written their TV film The Wipers Times for the channel.

Here in its stage premiere after first appearing on Radio 4 in 2016, Trial by Laughter proves to be entertaining, pointed and well performed. If it’s slightly tunnel-visioned and theatrically a bit crude, it always moves at a lick, right from our introduction to the decadent Prince Regent who wants Hone sent away for trading in politicised biblical parodies. The penniless but generous Hone (yes, the two may be connected) is played with endearing esprit by Joseph Prowen as he ends up defending himself in court.

Hislop and Newman do a fine job of conveying their hero’s initial awkwardness in court, then — calling on original transcripts — how he rallied himself by using his greatest asset, his wit. They are good, too, in the way they depict his attempts to appeal to the precedent of previous parodists against the nasty judges (Nicholas Murchie, Dan Tetsell, both excellent) who keep trying and failing to shut him up. They keep jokes coming, bring in friends and colleagues such as the cartoonist George Cruikshank and the essayist William Hazlitt, while giving a vivid sketch of the eternal vigilance that is the price of freedom: “Is laughter treason? Surely not?”

There are some disadvantages, though, to a satirist and a cartoonist writing about a satirist and a cartoonist. We need a stronger sense of what Hone’s satires were all about, their impact on society, indeed a broader sense of that society itself. We get a fleeting look of Hone’s home life, with his weary wife and many children, but some perspective is lacking.

Caroline Leslie’s zippy production is well served by its wood-panelled design, by Dora Schweitzer, and largely young cast, but goes wrong when it uses pre-recorded laughter to suggest the rabble-rousing impact Hone is having in the courtroom. It’s a device that should have been kept on radio. Rather than making us feel part of the event, it keeps reminding us that we weren’t there. Even so, it’s an amusing, enlightening evening. You’ll leave glad to have been introduced to William Hone, glad to have had a fresh reminder of the sort of sacrifices required to keep democracy on the rails.


Review from Newbury Theatre.

After their success with The Wipers Times, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman are back at the Watermill with Trial by Laughter, the true story of publisher William Hone and his struggles against the Regency establishment.

Hone was a generous, naïve small-time publisher and bookseller. He wrote parodies, in particular of religious tracts, and it was these that got him into trouble with the authorities. Over three days in 1817, he was tried three times for what his accusers called blasphemous libel. An intriguing story, and surprisingly little-known, given its importance for press freedom.

Although mostly presented as a courtroom drama, the court scenes are interlinked with flashbacks giving insights into Hone’s home life and social life, particularly with his younger friend George Cruikshank, a renowned cartoonist.

Joseph Prowen is an energetic and excitable Hone, egged on by Peter Losasso as the enthusiastic Cruikshank. Unrepresented by counsel, Hone proves to be a worthy (and wordy) advocate, knowing how to appeal to the jury by making them laugh, frustrating the attempts of the Lord Chief Justice (Dan Tetsell as a no-nonsense northerner) to get Hone locked up or transported.

The political side of the play revolves around the court with George the Prince Regent, a delightfully debauched portrayal by Jeremy Lloyd, and his mistresses Lady Hertford and Lady Conyngham (Helena Antoniou and Eva Scott). Nicholas Murchie makes suitably oily snide comments as George’s brother the Duke of York (the Grand Old one with ten thousand men).

The brown panelled set looms over the stage and is dominated by a huge clock which changes to show the time the action’s taking place. It’s cleverly designed by Dora Schweitzer to allow quick changes between courtroom, palace, jail and inn, helped by Matt Leventhall’s lighting.

Caroline Leslie has also directed Hislop and Newman’s previous Watermill productions A Bunch of Amateurs and The Wipers Times. There is much doubling up of characters and she effectively brings out the distinction between them. The first act courtroom scenes seemed a bit long, but the play is well written and keeps the action moving along effectively.

After its Watermill première, it goes on tour. A strong production of an interesting and educational play.


Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Subversive satire

Trial by Laughter, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday, October 27

Ian Hislop is no stranger to being the defendant in cases involving libel. In an entertaining article in the Trial by Laughter programme, he remembers standing in court with a toothbrush in his pocket waiting to hear if he were to be given a jail sentence. Fortunately, the toothbrush and its owner went home that day.

Who better then to collaborate with Nick Newman in a play based on the true story of William Hone, upholder of press freedom?

It was in 1817 that the satirist was brought to trial for writing a parody of The Book of Common Prayer. Two more trials followed in quick succession, all attended by crowds who had previously enjoyed the satirical attacks on the Government displayed in his Fleet Street shop.

It is these trials that form the play, interspersed by hilarious episodes concerning the concupiscent goings-on of the Prince Regent (Jeremy Lloyd). The rotund George hated Hone who, with the famous caricaturist George Cruickshank, continually ridiculed 'The Prince of Whales'.

Several of the cast take on more than one role so successfully that it is not usually apparent – a great tribute to the skill of the actors concerned.

Joseph Prowen is brilliant as Hone, to whose portrait he bears an extraordinary likeness. He captures the character of the man who declares to the court(s) his intention was never to ridicule religion and constantly refers to the miscarriage of justice in the case of 'the dumpling poisoner' Ellen Fenning, who was wrongly hanged. He is upheld throughout the trials by Cruickshank (Peter Losasso) who tells him that to win he has to be funny because "that's what we do".

He takes this advice, pouring out examples of those who have ridiculed and parodied before him. Spectacularly, humorously clever as this was, by the interval I wondered if I would continue to enjoy such outpourings for a second half. In fact, I did. Hone goes free, the Prince Regent continues his lusty games and it all ends with a jolly song.

Trial by Laughter, directed by Caroline Leslie, is written by two masters in the use of words celebrating a man who stood up for what he correctly believed was vital.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have said they believe that free speech and press freedom are still under threat as they were 200 years ago. A serious subject – and an extremely entertaining play.


There are reviews from WhatsOnStage ("another winner for Hislop and Newman and like Hone's testimony, it's a real crowd pleaser" - 4 stars), The Stage ("despite an intriguing subject and an energetic staging, though, the play often feels flat and toothless" - 3 stars), TheSpyInTheStalls ("a cracking play, both historically-rooted and completely topical, and well worth a trip to Newbury" - 4 stars), the Henley Standard ("extremely entertaining but also thought-provoking and informative... a fabulous evening’s entertainment... not to be missed").