Trial by Laughter at Chichester Festival Theatre - review

Trial by Laughter
Trial by Laughter

The great mass will only know Ian Hislop for his waspish humour on TV’s satirical political quiz show Have I Got News For You.

But as editor of Private Eye he has proved a giant in defending press freedom by puncturing the most bombastic of egos with rapier wit and brutal satire - and not being afraid to defend the right to do so in a succession of high profile libel actions.

So how appropriate that with Nick Newman they should pen this tribute to the father of the free press William Hone - who faced three court battles in succession in 1817 defending the very principles that all good journalists too often take for granted.

Hone used humour to help cleanse a corrupt political system - only ten per cent of the population had something resembling a vote - and he faced transportation to Australia and almost certain death if he had failed to convince the juries and thousands of well-wishers of his cause.

That he took on the establishment in court representing himself, armed only with his own deadpan humour and enormous courage, is reflected in this new play - more tribute than great drama but stirring stuff none the less for anyone who cares more for free speech than the self-serving rhetoric of some of our elected representatives.

It is difficult to hold the audience’s attention with the retelling of three court cases - but this production blends shades of restoration comedy, with the costumes of Cruikshank’s cartoons, and even an hint of Oliver the musical.

Jeremy Lloyd keeps us entertained as a portly and self-indulgent Prince Regent while wide-eyed Joseph Prowen blends principle and naivety as Hone himself.

In an era of fake news, this is a terrific reminder of the value of an honest free press - and the right of all us to poke fun at those who take themselves just a little too seriously.