Trial By Laughter, Chichester Festival Theatre - review

Trial By Laughter. Members of the cast. Photo by Philip Tull
Trial By Laughter. Members of the cast. Photo by Philip Tull

Until Saturday, February 9.

There were plenty of empty seats dotted around at the start of the second half. Clearly for some people, Trial By Laughter was a trial too much.

And that’s a shame... because the fault was far less with the play than with its title. Its worst offence is that it is probably a play which has been sadly missold.

Look at the title, think of the writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, and you’d reasonably imagine we’d be rolling around the aisles, splitting our sides, laughing uproariously.

In truth, that’s not remotely the kind of play it is. In fact it is a rather better play, an important play with a huge amount to say which resonates today, more than two centuries after the events it depicts, the three trials in three days of the completely-forgotten hero of free speech, William Hone.

A bookseller, publisher and satirist, Hone stood trial in 1817, for ‘impious blasphemy and seditious libel’. And when the jury failed to convict, the authorities tried him again the next day… and then the next.

The blurb puts it a touch simplistically when it says that “the only crime he had committed was to be funny”, but clearly the court and the courts wanted him silenced.

This is a play coming from the editor of Private Eye. So there’s certainly an element of “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?”, to resurrect the notorious Mandy Rice-Davies misquote, but Hislop has got a point and he makes it powerfully in a play which is perhaps a little slow to get going and dips curiously at the start of the second half – but a play which ultimately is that best kind of play, the type that stays with you long after you have finished watching.

Joseph Prowen gives a real sense of the immense physical and mental trial Hone went through in his successive legal trials – and he captures an appealing indomitability, one which makes you think posterity has been unkind in so totally losing him. Jeremy Lloyd is excellent as a living caricature of the Prince Regent

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