Sunday, 30 September 2018

REVIEW: Trial By Laughter at Watermill, Newbury

There can be no more appropriate authors than Ian Hislop and Nick Newman to write this celebration of the forgotten role of William Hone in the defence of the freedom of speech in Britain which the Editor and Cartoonist of Private Eye enjoy today. Hone was subjected to three separate trials over three days in December 1817 for the use of parody of religious documents to mock the Crown and politicians of the day. Hislop has himself faced many libel cases as Editor and therefore both understands the importance of the cases and arguments and how it feels to be in the dock. You can imagine the excitement they must have felt when they discovered the story and were commissioned to continue their playwriting collaboration which started with Bunch of Amateurs and continued even more successfully with the excellent World War 1 story of Wipers Times.

They first wrote it as a one hour radio play for BBC Radio 4 and have now extended it into a two act play for the Watermill but the transfer from Radio to stage is not as successfully as we might have expected. The basic tale is wonderful material; a penniless but witty writer and publisher, Home and his collaborator and drinking partner cartoonist George Cruickshank regularly entertain crowds in shop windows with their work and he sells his Reformists Register, not for revolution or profits but to change the establishment. The targets of the day are the bloated and lascivious Prince Regent, the self interested politicians in both houses and the corrupt judicial system which protects the establishment. He becomes a campaigner for the case of Eliza Fenwick, the dumpling murderer hung for allegedly poisoning her employers although they neither actually died.

Indeed the modern day parallels with Trump accusing all of fake news when he does not like what is being said, MP’s expense scandals or the Politicians lies and misinformation over Brexit are obvious. The problem for the modern audience is we are not familiar enough with the characters being caricatured or the documents being parodied, whether it is the Catechism or the Athanasian Creed, in the way the crowd who gathered outside shop windows of the court at the time would have been. So in the critical scenes when Hone defends his words in court by referencing precedents of parody or reads his pieces a loud, the laughter he generated at the time is played into the theatre and not generated by the audience itself. Only when the comical policemen enter to silence the crowd as the Judge threatens to arrest everyone who laughs and we briefly descend into pantomime is the out loud laughter real.

The writing is clever and witty, the purpose and intent valid and interesting and we do smile at the caricatures particularly the excellent scenes with the Prince Regent (Jeremy Lloyd) and his mistresses who asserts “I will punish anyone who says I am vindictive”. There is too the heartfelt plea which asks “I don’t expect you to share my views but at least respect them” , a mantra that society would be better served following as we increasingly live in fear of offending a minority but what is said or written.

The generally young cast throw themselves into the play with great energy and
vigour with Joseph Prowen and Peter Losasso leading the way as Hone and Cruickshank. Prowen successfully conveys Hone’s growing skill in defending himself over the three days despite his obvious exhaustion.

The set by Dora Schweitzer again shoe horns a lot onto the tiny Watermill stage with a full panelled box set that serves as the court, the Prince’s palace , the local pub and Hone’s houses as well as the streets in between! The projected clock upstage centre changes to reflect the location and time of day and signals flashbacks most effectively.

This is a worthwhile tale, informative, packed with detail, anecdote and enjoyable but does not work as well as the Wipers Times in its story telling and comedy and the laughter promised by the title is not a free flowing as might be expected.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Stalls row D | Price of ticket: £25
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