Theatre review - Trial by Laughter, The Lowry Theatre
PUBLISHED: 13:40 30 January 2019
A clever and perfectly timed tale of the fight for freedom of the press, Hislop and Newman do it again.
I adored the first Hislop & Newman piece, The Wipers Times. By turns funny and devastatingly sad, it shone a light on two of British people’s greatest assets – our unique sense of humour, finding the funny in the worst of situations, and our refusal to lie down and stay down. This play picks up the thread beautifully, once again we meet a man, William Hone, who uses classic British humour to draw attention to inequality, to highlight the extraordinary hypocrisy and control of government and the monarchy over the ordinary man. His pamphlets were written to poke fun at the establishment, to make people laugh, to make people notice and to make people demand change. His friend, the cartoonist George Cruikshank, does the same thing but in visual form.
We still do this today, and if this freedom were to be taken away, we might as well be living in Russia, or under some other despotic rule of man or government. And we Brits really wouldn’t do well with that.
The story, and we must never forget this is a true story (with a little poetic licence) starts with the arrest of William Hone for blasphemous libel and seditious libel. In short, he wrote parodies of religious tracts to take the micky out of the porky, licentious Prince Regent, George, and the Government who bent over to do his bidding and protect their positions. Poverty stricken, he had no facility to hire legal counsel, so spoke for himself. Over the course of six hours he showed how what he did wasn’t blasphemy, but parody, an age-old, long-accepted form of political commentary. It was ‘political’, he argues, he did it for the lols.
He was charged with offending God, but what he really did of course was offend the men at the top. Today in Britain this barely raises an eyebrow, with few politicians bothering to engage. We’re lucky, in less democratic nations offending the man at the top can still result in arrest and imprisonment. Or a barrage of nasty Tweets, if you head west.
It would be quite easy to take this story and make a very serious, sensible play from it; one that slammed home the point in no uncertain terms. This is not the way of Hislop and Newman, we know. Hone was himself very funny; he used this humour to win his case. Hislop and Newman are also very funny, and also, of course, renowned for pointing out the more ridiculous aspects of modern life in Britain so it’s no surprise that they have written a very clever, very witty and very funny play that shares its message without being remotely worthy.
The scenes with the Prince Regent are marvellous, presenting him much as Hone, Cruikshank and their fellow scribblers and cartoonists did – a bumbling, arrogant, vastly fat and ridiculous figure encased in silks and satins, desporting with his various mistresses and demanding that his ministers stop people from calling him fat. He utters one line that totally sums him up: “I shall punish anybody who calls me vindictive.” It’s all quite brilliant.
There’s not a member of the cast who doesn’t earn his or her place at the table here. Joseph Prowen’s Hone is small and delicate in the face of the larger (literally) opposition, yet his energy lifts him above them all. Cruikshank, played by Peter Losasso, is an irreverent drunkard and Sarah Hone (Eva Scott) is a sturdy, if frustrated support to her husband – she also gives us a marvellous Lady Conyngham, one of the Prince’s ribald, silly mistresses. The Prince himself is played to great comic effect by Jeremy Lloyd, whose physicality is as clever as his speech.
It’s all thoroughly enjoyable – and you will learn something too, if you wish!
Trial by Laughter plays at The Lowry Theatre until 2 February.