Trial by Laughter (2 stars)

Trial by Laughter

Valuable yet ultimately dull historical comedy

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman's latest script, Trial by Laughter, addresses a subject dear to the editor and cartoonist of Private Eye, the intersection between libel and satire. Relating the tribulations of William Hone, a publisher who found himself under attack from the state in 1817, thanks to a series of provocative parodies of Christian liturgies that mocked the government of the Prince Regent, Trial by Laughter focuses on the three attempts made by the government to prosecute Hone – bringing him to court on three charges on three consecutive days. Hone was found not guilty three times, and his victory was an important moment for the development of the free press.

At its best, Trial by Laughter is a workmanlike trawl through Hone's time in court: his importance is summed up in a final scene, in which his family, Victorian celebrities and a young reporter reflect on his success. Without the gravitas or complexity necessary for tragedy, and lacking the emotional dynamism of melodrama, the plot grinds through the three trials, with selected flashbacks for context, relying on the same coup de theatre of the jury announcing their verdict three times. Hislop and Newman's dialogues are predictable, using broad humour and stock characterisation – a virtuous protagonist, his loving wife, the comedy companion and corrupt ministers of state. This fits nicely with the tome of Hone's satire, and the cartoons of his ally Cruikshank, but does not lend itself to performance: the repetition of the courtroom scenes, the use of hidden speakers in the audience to replicate the enthusiasm of the crowd for Hone's spirited defence and the predictable idiocy of the Prince Regent – immortalised in Blackadder the Third – leave the production floundering for focus.

Despite a reference to the contemporary Prince of Wales, Trial by Laughter revels in period detail, but lacks the imaginative dramaturgy to explore this important episode's relevance. Hone's defence, against blasphemy, doesn't connect to modern European censorship and state paranoia, and the traditional structure lumbers through the story: even a lively performance by Joseph Prowen as Hone can't rescue the increasingly turgid comedy or connect the use of libel by individuals in the twenty-first century as a form of censorship, something Hislop has addressed in Private Eye, to this post-Enlightenment manipulation of religious sentiment. It is a worthy subject, but lacks the dramaturgical invention to lift it above its origins as a radio play.

King's Theatre, Glasgow, then touring.

Trial by Laughter

New play by acclaimed writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman about the bookseller, publisher and satirist William Hone.

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