Set in December 1817, Trial by Laughter concerns the plight of an unassuming publisher of cartoons and satirical pamphlets, William Hone, who is prosecuted by the King. He is charged by the Tory government with seditious libel and blasphemy – against the monarchy, the Regency government, and God. Hone’s crime is essentially to defend free speech and the right to hold those in authority to account.
Hone argues throughout his trials that he uses humour and satire as a mirror or lens through which to view political events of the day. He says he is attacking politicians, not God; it’s his wit that entertains the public in the gallery and draws a crowd. William Hone is acted energetically by Joseph Prowen, who has appeared in Midsomer Murders and Casualty on TV.
Playwright Ian Hislop, who is also editor of Private Eye and spent five years writing for Spitting Image, writes that he and other modern-day satirists “stand on the shoulders of giants.” He also defends Hone’s story as a tale relevant in our time: “It is also worth remembering that the policy of prosecuting your critics for blasphemy when you really want to stop them criticizing your politics is still being enthusiastically used by repressive governments all around the world.”
But Trial by Laughter is also about friendship, between Hone and cartoonist George Cruikshank (played by Peter Lossasso). Cruikshank is by Hone's side, both in court and at revels in the pub. Several of his cartoons appear in the programme and are arguably more crude than many modern illustrations. Meanwhile, Hone’s wife (Eva Scott, known to many for her role in Coronation Street) is long-suffering and terrified of the impact of events on their large family – but she finds a key piece of evidence for the trial and must not be underestimated.
The play is a period piece – set in the time when King George III is alive but declared insane, and the Prince Regent is awaiting his succession to the throne. Some argue the prince became the worst ever King of England when his time eventually did come; and Jeremy Lloyd is hilarious in the role, entertaining one and all with his silly games and whimsical fancies. He stands out to me as a man of great talent and humour.
Dora Schweitzer’s set is cleverly versatile, acting as courtroom and pub as well as the King’s parlour – with a clock ticking inexorably, and a shutter on a balcony to add space and introduce more characters. Direction by Caroline Leslie was also very good.
You will enjoy this play: it provides food for thought about freedom of the press, is a window into a different age, and above all shows how wit can triumph over adversity. Laugh and the world laughs with you.