Trial by Laughter - Milton Keynes Theatre (
By Quentin Fox

As editor of Private Eye, the satirical magazine, Ian Hislop
knows more than most about having to stand up in court to defend his brand of
snark against the forces of the powerful, which is why Trial By Laughter, his
latest collaboration with Nick Newman, hits both your funny bone and your
thinking bits so well.

The play is a fast-moving courtroom drama based on contemporary
accounts of an 1817 trial that not only revives the reputation of an almost
forgotten figure in the fight for freedom of speech, freedom of the press and,
well, freedom, but also asks whether our current liberties are as strong as we
think they are. And there are fart gags as well. Result all round.

In the repressive days between Waterloo and Peterloo, William
Hone, a hapless publisher and satirist, is arraigned for taking pot-shots at the Lord's Prayer, a tyrannical government running scared of the dangerous ideas of
the French Revolution and the sybaritic excesses of the Prince Regent.

It’s as true today as then that tyrants hate the sound of
laughter, so Hone, whose only crime is being funny, finds himself up on a
charge of “blasphemous libel”, though it’s not so much about God being
offended, but more about the abuse of a more earthly power.

  A man of meagre resources,
(he has eight children) and failing health he is compelled to mount his own
defence but is aided by the brilliant George Cruikshank - caricaturist,
cartoonist and total chancer.

Against all odds Hone gets off,
but a vengeful Establishment, egged on by the Prince Regent,  pulls off a dodgy “best of three”
set of charges (because
they can), causing him to be hauled into court twice more in 48 hours on
increasingly serious indictments.

When a man has nothing, he has nothing to lose and Hone begins a
series of rebuttals from the dock that see him grow in stature and his barbs grow
more coruscating. When the court sheriffs order
the audience not to laugh at Hone’s jokes it has, as it must have done
at the time, completely the opposite effect.

Hislop and Newman have reassembled the creative team that made
their previous stage venture, The Wipers Times, such a success – a versatile set
design by Dora Schweitzer, ingenious sound by Steve Mayo and Caroline Leslie’s
hand on the directorial tiller.

It’s impossible not to love Joseph Prowen's earnestly engaging Hone,
a physically weak but mentally strong man willing to risk all for the right to
be funny. Eva Scott is excellent as Sarah, his  long-suffering but fiercely supportive wife. As
with many of the cast she gets a run-out as a second character, in her case Lady
Conyngham, one of the Prince Regent’s ghastly mistresses. Applause, too, for
Peter Losasso as the rascally Cruikshank, and for Jeremy Lloyd as a petulant,
brattish Prince Regent.

We live in an age where freedom of expression
is still challenged and chilled by the powerful with their injunctions and
super-injunctions. This production is inspiring in reviving the name of a real
hero of liberty. Find a young person and take them to the play to show them
what needs guarding for the future.

Trial by Laughter is at the Milton Keynes Theatre
until Saturday March 2