Review: Trial by Laughter (Watermill Theatre)

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s new piece looks at what happens when William Hone is put on trial for libel.

Joseph Prowen and Nicholas Murchie in Trial by Laughter
Joseph Prowen and Nicholas Murchie in Trial by Laughter
© Philip Tull

"Make 'em laugh" says the song and it proves good advice for satirist William Hone, on trial in 1817 for seditious libel and blasphemy against the Prince Regent and Tory establishment. Parody is his smoking gun – the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments are among the sacred texts he sends up to attack the excesses of his targets. His adviser is his partner in crime, brilliantly scurrilous cartoonist George Cruikshank, who in return gets a meal ticket with drink thrown in. So Hone sets out to confound his accusers by making the jury laugh – and by extension the audience, in Ian Hislop and Nick Newman's witty, thought-provoking comedy, based on contemporary accounts. Just like their previous stage hit, The Wipers Times, the story of a satirical magazine that came out of the trenches of World War One, Hone's predicament is a shoe-in for the Private Eye writing partners.

As a veteran of libel trials from inside the dock, Hislop knows of what he writes, and the implications of this trial for free speech then and now are clear. Seizing on the extraordinary time scale – Hone was subjected to three trials in three days – time is of the essence in the writing duo's fast-moving, forensic stage retelling. Dora Schweitzer's equally witty cartoonish set is dominated by a clock that fast forwards and backwards, accompanied by nicely knitted comedy music and sound effects (sound designer Steve Mayo and composer and musical director Tom Attwood).

Along with Schweitzer and Mayo, director Caroline Leslie was part of the creative team behind The Wipers Times and again she has assembled a crack cast, who attack with relish not just the cartoon comedy but also the very real terror and even pathos of Hone's plight.

Joseph Prowen's youthful Hone has a sympathetic, earnest gravitas. It's exhilarating to watch his understandable fearful reticence in court grow into an increasingly eloquent bravado. Peter Losasso's charismatic, devil-may-care George Cruikshank, is every inch the darling of the crowd, who eagerly await his next cartoon, like followers of a latter-day Twitter star.

As the target of Cruikshank's OTT cartoons, Jeremy Lloyd's plumped-out, narcissistic, naughty-child Prince Regent is at the same time deliciously comical and worryingly corrupt. He brings those cartoons to life playing suggestive silly games with rival mistresses even as he plots with his political heavies to bring Hone down. Helena Antoniou and Eva Scott get down and dirty as the horny Prince's favourites. Scott doubles effectively as Hone's long-suffering wife, Sarah, raising eight children (and counting) in abject poverty and acting as her husband's researcher without the aid of Google.

Lloyd makes an equally arresting Officer. The pun is intended. Three times he delivers the dreaded summons to Hone to appear before the bigwigs. Hone is prosecuted by Philippe Edwards' straight-faced Sidmouth before a pair of successively scary judges, Nicholas Murchie's Justice Abbott, not just straight, but grim-faced; and even more draconian, Dan Tetsell's Lord Ellenborough, wannabe nemesis of Hone. Happily, Tetsell also gets to play left-wing icon William Hazlitt, obligingly providing encouraging aphorisms like "Faith is necessary to victory" and posing with a fan for Cruikshank to sketch an 18th-century selfie.

A genuine sense of the miserable gaol conditions is actually established via the state of Hone's bowels. Cruikshank correctly declares "You can't fail with flatulence". Hone reveals Martin Luther's role in the history of parody and the Dean of Canterbury's wit in the pulpit: "Our Pope, which art in Rome, hellish be thy name …" It's this combination of the revelatory with the scatological that makes this another winner for Hislop and Newman and like Hone's testimony, it's a real crowd pleaser.