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Trial by Laughter

King’s Theatre, Glasgow

Three Stars

In an increasingly apocalyptic looking world, how far do comedic provocateurs go in pointing out the inherent ridiculousness of their self-serving masters? As with most things, in terms of so-called leaders more resembling grotesque caricatures than actual functioning politicians, we have been here before. This is something Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s timely dramatic sketch-book of the trials of nineteenth century bookseller and pamphleteer William Hone makes abundantly clear.

One minute, Hone and his cartoonist comrade George Cruikshank are hustling their national lampoon of the gluttonous Prince Regent and his well-upholstered cronies to the masses. The next, Hone is hauled before the courts to answer charges of blasphemy, not once, not twice, but a suitably biblical three times in as many days. Of course, it’s a massive stitch-up designed to wear Hone out, but even the establishment’s well-worn tactic of attrition blows up in their faces like the whiffiest of Hone’s ever-rumbling raspberries.

Caroline Leslie’s Trademark Touring and Watermill Theatre production goes with the flow of Hislop and Newman’s historical confection. The clock at the centre of Dora Schweitzer’s wood-panelled courtroom set whizzes back and forth from the cut and thrust of each trial to the roots of each alleged libel, with detours into the buffoonish Prince Regent’s chambers en route.

When Joseph Prowen steps up to plead his case, he looks and sounds every inch a hero of our times, even as he pre-dates similarly absurdist legal actions from the 1960s Oz magazine trial to Hislop’s own capers in the dock as editor of Private Eye.

While urgency may be lacking at points, it more than makes up for it in the comic romp stakes, as Jeremy Lloyd’s Prince Regent plays kiss-chase with his mistresses. By the end, Hone might have remained uncompromising to the last, but it is Cruikshank who sold out to the king’s shilling. Such is the way of things as professional satirists bite the hand that feeds them, already a part of the class they so cuttingly critique.

The Herald, February 12th 2019

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