REVIEW: TRIAL BY LAUGHTER (Milton Keynes Theatre) ★★★

In an era of ‘fake news’, the importance of the free press becomes paramount. In some countries, writers are still persecuted for telling the truth and even in the western world, satirists receive death threats and suspect parcels on many occasions.

Trial by Laughter by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman tells the story of William Hone, a 19th century satirist, who was accused of, and tried for, seditious libel and blasphemy on three separate occasions. What makes this worthy of a story? These trials took place on consecutive days…

Add to that Hislop’s own track record for losing libel cases and the picture becomes clear!

It’s an interesting story. Taken from William Hone’s own version of events it follows his mockery of the elite – in particular the Prince Regent – and how they acted accordingly to try and bring him down.

Directed by Caroline Leslie, the production itself leaves a lot to be desired. The acting is more amateur than professional and few of the characters are believable. It’s slow and actually quite dull, while jokes provoke nothing more than a few titters. Perhaps, as Ian Hislop told us himself afterwards, we are just not akin to the rabble waiting outside the court in 1817.

That said, Joseph Prowen (Hone) is excellent. His portrayal embodies a man broken with the stress of so many trials, but who is determined to hold true to his beliefs. Dan Marsh is a fantastic Ellenborough, domineering and repulsive. These two actors, and the instrumental music, ensure the play is worth returning for the second act.

In its defence, the use of Hone’s original version of events would reduce its impact for a modern audience, due to the different styles of language and humour. And presumably the characters are designed to be caricatures of themselves. But it goes too far – the similarities to Molière and pantomime (not to mention the singing) give it a dated, awkward feel.

But in spite of everything the story is fascinating and prompts further questions and reading.

Reviewed by Michaela Clement-Hayes
Photo: Pilip Tull


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