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FringeReview UK 2018

Trial By Laughter

Trademark Touring and Watermill Theatre Production

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton


Low Down

Directed by Caroline Leslie, it’s blessed with a set by Dora Schweitzer who also framed the overall costumery designed by provided by Bristol Costume Services with Sophie Eade’s wigs. Matt Leventhall’s lighting is most notable for the clock, but evokes dim and bright interiors on such a winter day. Steve Mayo’s sound aids composer Tom Attwood’s tinkly attractive harpsichord pastiches.


If you find a winning formula for laughter, you don’t usually turn it inside out. The Wipers Times used humour as a coping mechanism for trench warfare. So when Ian Hislop and Nick Newman turned to Trial By Laughter they turned that inside out: humour weaponized.


One shy radical bookseller defends himself in court against crown and government who accuse him of blasphemy to stifle his politics. For them it’s personal too: Prince Regent and government was to snuff him out to a death sentence in the colonies. For him too: sheer necessity means he can’t afford counsel. He’s been in jail so long he’s bankrupt. Still laughing? You will.


The result’s a superb period drama, set in December 1817, using the play’s real-life caricaturist George Cruikshank as a cut-out guide. We get send-ups, blow-ins, blast-outs – and characters of some depth with a dash of pathos, out of Cruikshank’s scabrous palate.


It was Janice Hadlow who introduced the duo to William Hone (1780-1842). Who? That’s what they’d said. It’s true he’s still revered in radical histories, and isn’t wholly obscure. But planting an ignorant young journalist in the final scene asking a now better-informed audience who Hone was, invites a re-run of our ignorance.


Hone, here played with consummate energy by Joseph Prowen is also principled, though munificent with everyone but his own family; loving but absent, frightened, nervously then magnificently eloquent, and in perilous health. One of the darkest points of this play is Hone’s physical frailty: something intended by a government who wants him dead – or pensioned off into silence. You wonder if he might succeed, collapse, or fail and do the same.


It started as a Radio 4 broadcast, but Trademark Touring and Watermill Theatre Production embraced it enthusiastically and this tour continuing into March is one of the highest-quality comedies to grace this theatre in a while – as opposed to two supreme farces this autumn.


Pacily directed by Caroline Leslie, it’s blessed with a set by Dora Schweitzer. An elegant triptych facade of wood with a central clock lit in different ways – once pocked like a moon – whose hands revolve, it’s a miracle of economy. Evoking houses with opening shutter reveals, it doubles as panelled interiors for court and pub, Hone’s house and a chilly street sprinkled with snow. Under the central clock out pops a judge’s and prince’s throne as it were. And once a vertical bed. There’s a sprinkle too of benches tables and court bars. Matt Leventhall’s lighting is most notable for the clock, but evokes dim and bright interiors on such a winter day.


Steve Mayo’s sound aids composer Tom Attwood’s tinkly attractive harpsichord pastiches. The jury’s behind us in the sound system. Masterstroke. Attwood starts with the ostinato-upbeat of Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto of a century earlier and brings it back as a theme tune. This is right. It’s a perky upbeat play and counterpoint and wit are at a premium. There’s Arne, Boyce and Handel snippets, the kind of thing you’d still have heard. At one point the clock reverses and so does the music.


The plot’s simple and simply packed. Prinny – Prince Regent – is not amused. In Jeremy Lloyd’s principle role apart from ultimately humane arresting Officer he’s puffed up into a buffooning Prince of Whales Cruikshank caricature as what polemical poet Leigh Hunt described as ‘a fat Adonis of fifty’ which got him jailed in 1814.


Sophie Eade’s wigs and the overall costumery work as depicted in Cruikshank’s primary colour cartoons. Does this remind us of something contemporary flying like a yellow balloon? The whole snuff-the-press scenario perhaps, anywhere but Anglophone countries… However…..


Prinny’s also lecherous, as Helena Antoniou’s Lady Hertford complacently indulges him, also paying the wrongly-executed servant Eliza Fenning who pops out of a shutter to recite her hanging-speech, one of Hone’s great prior causes which history has vindicated. Antoniou’s in contrast with Eva Scott’s slimmer-played Lady Conyngham whose role is to be slightly put out when Prinny’s chasing the other mistress – till the end. Scott’s main role is of long-suffering Sarah Hone.


This high watermark of those brash colours – blue and yellows – contrasts with the sober blacks of power, and grey-browns of deserving champions of the poor. Dan Tetsell’s an orotund-sounding William Hazlitt: great critic radical, painter and sardonic supporter of the seemingly doomed Hone. Tetsell specializes in Eeyorishness; though Hazlitt’s gradual warming to his friend’s improvident bravery is palpable.


His main role’s far more curious, Lord Ellenborough who’s determined to kill Hone if he can. Ironically he provides an unwitting key to release Hone. Tetsell’s villainous black-clad cut-out is a strait-jacket he wears well, so the Saturnine sympathies of Hazlitt come as a relief. It’s Ellenborough who provides the engine of persecution.


Philippe Edwards’ Lord Sidmouth is the government minister most in league – Edwards flurries too as a hapless fan of Hazlitt’s, Shepherd; and that reporter at the end. Mostly, Edwards enjoys being sardonic foil to Tetsell, suffering even more butts from Prinny’s jokes – he and Testell bowing through their teeth in fury at Prinny’s sheer fat-uousness. Nicholas Murchie’s both the Grand Old Duke of York complaining about that libellous nursery rhyme but pricking his brother’s vast sail too, as well as the poor mistresses, Earlier he’s a not wholly villainous Justice Abbott, presiding over the first trial.


The main dynamic though is Prowen’s relationship with Scott’s Sarah Hone and Peter Losasso’s Cruikshank, always bumming Hone for monies, which Hone too generously subsidises everyone with, though bankrupt. Losasso exudes a not very likeable cartoonist lampooning his predecessor Gilray for accepting a silencing pension, referring to him as second-best to himself. He twits Hazlitt and Sarah: spending money on drink and dragging Hone with him seems positively Mephistopholean.


But if he pushes Hone to radical gestures he never deserts him, and does his best for him in court. Losasso treads a fine line between contempt for his puffed-up almost Prinny-ish pride – though far more intelligent – and a slow sympathy. He is true to Hone to the end, his primary-coloured heart is in the right place. At the end he’s gifted with a wafer-thin nobility.


Scott’s Sarah navigates from scold to fellow-sufferer to ingenious springer of evidence to a moving affirmation of love and admiration for her wondrous husband.


Everything’s built round those three trials, victory in one over Abbott where the use of precedent blasts Ellenbrorough’s attempts as Attorney General. It forms the climax to Act One, though in the celebrations there’s that Officer again, and we end with Hone back in jail. And Abbott’s no more. Ellenborough will preside and he’s brought his bulldog nasties with him to stop any trial by laughter. They threaten the audience. Behind whom there’s a boom of defiant guffaws.


Though Elenborough does his best we’re telescoped with similar arguments through the victorious second verdict to immediate arrest on Christmas Eve. This time the Officer, Lloyd off-duty from being Prinny, begs Hone to leave for America; his development from harsh summoner to complicit comrade is touching. Hone invites him n from the cold to share coffee.


Stakes are higher. No precedent – parodies of liturgies Lord’s Prayer and crucially the Athanasian Creed – are admissable, though published by Divines themselves. Hone’s desperate. Sarah’s dispatched since after two bouts of conducting an eight-hour defence himself Hone’s on his knees; nothing to say. We see Sarah frantic through a pop-out. Hour-hands reverse and spin forward.


How will it end? There’s always melancholy attendant on laughter. that ignorant scribbler asking about Hine. He asks the name of his informant and is stunned. So will you be.


This is a first-class comedy, infused with caricature as its powerhouse it nevertheless finds room for humanity, pathos and tenderness in the most unexpected people. Prowen’s truth, and energy are outstanding. He convinces you of Hone’s importance: heroism and fallibility. Scott, Tetsell and Losasso lend first class support as half-round characters, as do others in their multi-roling: Lloyd, Antoniou, Edwards, Murchie. And there’s an unexpected routine.


You should see this. You won’t see a finer comedy till well into the new year. But we should also leave far better weaponed. Hone defined what freedom of the press means. It needs fighting for. Again.