Touring – reviewed until Chichester Festival Theatre
There’s a line in Trial By Laughter, the new touring production of Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s play about freedom of the press, where one of the main characters says to the other: “But where are the jokes?” As neat summaries of a play in one line of dialogue go, it’s one of the best I’ve seen. Because they’re certainly nowhere to be seen in the script of this thumping disappointment of a show.
It gives me no pleasure to write this, by the way. In fact it seems pretty perverse to complain that something that’s come from the minds and pens of two of the brains behind Private Eye (Hislop is, of course, editor, Newman his head cartoonist) isn’t just unfunny but actively boring. And yet here we are. It’s a thing I’m doing.
It’s doubly odd because Trial By Laughter has such a promising premise. It tells the largely unknown (or forgotten) story of William Hone, the Regency era satirist who was put on trial for blasphemous libel three times in three days because the cartoons he and collaborator George Cruikshank were publishing offended the Government and Prince Regent.
The trials were blatantly biased against him, but Hone was acquitted each time and became something of a public hero. It’s a really important, fascinating and very seldom told story in the history of the free press in England. You’d think it would make a similarly compelling play. And yet.
The script that Hislop and Newman have produced to tell this story is definitely not compelling. It is so exposition heavy that I kept expecting Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers films to have a walk on cameo.
The tone is very much history lesson rather than piece of entertainment; in fact the whole production reminded me of one of those educational touring companies that you would occasionally get in GCSE history lessons to ‘make history come alive’.
The result is that the audience, much like a GCSE history class full of teenagers, don’t connect and the jokes – such as they are – fall completely flat. On the subject of the jokes, not only are they few and far between they’re also just not very good. The Regency obsession with the word ‘bum’ doesn’t play so well anymore I fear. A few mildly amusing lines about ‘the French’ aside, the funniest scene of the play is a bit of physical comedy to do with people walking into a hanging basket. To put it another way: there was a lot of coughing in the audience and a notable number of empty seats after the interval. Not a good recommendation.
On top of these problems with the play, the production isn’t that strong either. Director Caroline Leslie delivers something that’s paced reasonably well but that has a number of technical issues that annoyed me. The play contains a number of flashback scenes, which the design of the show fails to make clear (the projected clock neither being particularly obvious nor completely visible from all seats in the theatre in which I saw it – Chichester). The recorded backing track for the court scenes – supposed to be members of the public shouting and laughing from the gallery – doesn’t work. It gives the effect of cheap canned laughter which becomes especially cringeworthy when the track laughs but no one in the audience does. Dora Schweitzer’s set is clever enough in keeping things moving along, but is otherwise fairly forgettable. I vaguely recall there was music, but couldn’t tell you anything about it. And though I understand why a touring production wouldn’t use all of Chichester’s huge thrust stage, the fact that the front portion wasn’t even dressed into the set just looked lazy.
Every cloud has a silver lining, and in the case of Trial By Laughter it comes in the form of a couple of sparkling performances from the young actors in the central roles. Joseph Prowen’s Hone is a suitably sympathetic and earnest figure and he manages the huge chunks of dialogue he’s required to work through really well. It’s a strong performance and an impressive feat of memory to boot. As his sidekick Cruikshank, Peter Losasso comes close to stealing the show with a cheeky and charismatic performance which generates most of the laughs. He is supremely watchable.
Overall, I found Trial By Laughter to be a huge disappointment. A play from two such funny and intelligent people about such an interesting, unknown and important story should just not be as boring and humourless as this – in some ways it’s almost an achievement that it is. As a friend of mine summed it up: lots of trial, not so much laughter.
Trial By Laughter is on tour (to Glasgow, Richmond, Milton Keynes and Eastbourne) until 9th March.
I saw this one at Chichester Festival Theatre and sat in F57 in the stalls. It cost £27 and is great value for that (for a better show, anyway).