Trial by Laughter, Chichester Festival Theatre, review: ‘The jokes have not aged that well’

Trial by Laughter is at Chichester Festival Theatre until February 9.
Trial by Laughter is at Chichester Festival Theatre until February 9.

The year is 1817, and satirist and publisher William Hone stands trial for blasphemy and libel for parodying biblical texts – a smokescreen for the Prince Regent to silence the man who had long mocked him for being fat.

He is charged and acquitted by jury three times in as many days, each enraging the portly Prince George more than the last.

How does Mr Hone do it? By making the jurors see the funny side.

Except, the jokes have not aged that well – which made the use of canned laughter slightly cringe-worthy, as if the producers were aware they couldn’t rely on the audience’s natural laughter to further the plot.

I also found the play’s structure to be both slightly too repetitive and too confusing at the same time: the format of trial after trial after trial combined with mildly disorientating flashbacks.

That being said, I did enjoy it.

A large part of that was down to Joseph Prowen’s portrayal of Mr Hone; his charisma and enthusiasm played down any self-righteousness in the character and dialled up the charm, so I was really rooting for him to succeed.

The last scene, set at Hone’s funeral, really smacks you round the head with how important he was, which was eye-roll inducing.

But for me, the play spoke to me the most when Mr Hone was making his own case for freedom of the press.

If you liked writer Ian Hislop’s previous play The Wipers Times, you’ll enjoy this too.

In fact, I preferred this.

Until February 9.