If at first you don’t succeed… try, try, try again.” That exactly describes the Regency government’s attempts to bring down bookseller and publisher William Hone in 1817.

Prosecuted for seditious libel and blasphemy, Hone was acquitted by a jury after only 15 minutes’ deliberation in spite of a blatantly biased summing-up from the judge.

Two further trials followed. Only after the third acquittal did the authorities give up – much to the explosive fury of the Prince Regent, whose corpulent personage made him a perfect subject for satire in the very pamphlets and cartoons that Hone was accused of selling.

Trial by Laughter is an adaptation of this real-life story by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, the authors behind the highly successful The Wipers Times (three national tours and two West End transfers so far). It’s easy to see why Hone’s story resonates with them: as Hislop writes in a programme note: “I have been the defendant in quite a few libel trials over the years”, while Newman is an award-winning cartoonist who works with Hislop on Private Eye for over 30 years.

In this stage premiere, of Trial by Laughter, Watermill director Caroline Leslie presents the three trials interlaced with scenes of victory celebrations in the pub, plus scenes of debauchery in the Prince Regent’s apartments.

In court, Hone defends himself by cracking jokes based on historical precedent and citing previous religious parodies. Each successive, unseen jury is reduced to helpless laughter – it’s a pity, though, that this laughter is canned: a less cautious production could have risked involved us, the audience, more thoroughly in the jokes.

Joseph Prowen gives the star performance of the evening: at first nervous and naïve, his Hone visibly gains in confidence with each acquittal. He’s well backed up by Peter Losasso as Hone’s vital supporter, the famous cartoonist George Cruikshank. By the end, you’re left in no doubt that this little-known story still has considerable relevance in today’s media world.