With our current crop of world leaders often seemingly beyond parody, Trial by Laughter is a timely reminder that political incompetence, corruption, and naked self-interest are hardly new phenomena. Written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, and directed by Caroline Leslie – the same team who created 2016’s First World War-set The Wipers Times – this is another tale from the history of subversive satire.
The true story follows bankrupt bookseller and social reformist William Hone, who in 1817 was subjected to an unprecedented three trials in three days on charges of libel and blasphemy. Despite an intriguing subject and an energetic staging, though, the play often feels flat and toothless, padded with fat jokes and fart jokes – which are, admittedly, a fitting reflection of much of the satirical material under discussion.
Joseph Prowen does a fine job as Hone, fresh faced and filled with righteous optimism, but visibly withering under his continued persecution by the powers that be, here represented by a snarling, scenery chewing Dan Tetsell as infamously austere judge Lord Ellenborough. Peter Losasso is likewise strong as savage cartoonist George Cruikshank, delivering every pun with hammy commitment.
Dora Schweitzer’s elegant set blends seamlessly with the Watermill Theatre’s characterful space, all frosted glass and wood panels which pull out to reveal lawyer’s benches, tables, and finally a king-sized bed laden with silk pillows. Steve Mayo’s sound design features a boisterous rabble of recorded voices, which fills the auditorium with the jeers, cheers, and heckling of the rightly outraged public.