There was a very special frisson tonight in Chichester as a tale of vicious brutal murder unfolded – in the very building in which the real-life perpetrators were tried, convicted and condemned very nearly three centuries ago.
It’s a hideous, compelling tale – a gift to a playwright, you might say.
But that’s to take nothing away from the brilliance with which Greg Mosse has made extensive research live and breathe before our eyes – and to take nothing away from a cast which does justice both to the gruesomeness of the tale and the excellence of the writing, all under Roger Redfarn’s very fine direction.
In just a few years, Chichester Community Theatre has become a terrific asset to the city. Tonight’s remarkably assured first night underlined its calibre.
Set in and around Chichester in the late 1740s, the play tells the story of the notorious smugglers known as the Hawkhurst Gang who were tried and condemned for kidnap, torture and murder in the room in which we were sitting.
The trial takes up the second half with a bewigged Steve Wallace excellent as he details the utterly ghastly way in which poor Daniel Chater (Ben Cassan) and William Galley (Nick Roughton) met their deaths.
The opening hour charts their fateful journey into the hands of the Rowlands Castle foursome who (thanks heavens, off stage) take such pains to prolong their pains.
Framing it all and popping up at the trial is Chater’s wife, a superb performance from Lisa McNaught which gives us all the agony of the crime. Paula Tinker is similarly impressive as Elizabeth Payne.
But it’s the foursome, by turns denying, surly, betraying each other and despairing, who rightly provide the night’s lasting memory – strong performances from Andy Horner, Roger Booth, Gareth Williams and Trevor Roman within exactly the same four walls their real-life counterparts learnt their fate.
Greg Mosse rightly injects humour into his grisly tale – but judges it perfectly to ensure it does nothing to detract from the sheer horribleness of the story we are told (but don’t witness. Even so, the 12-and-over age recommendation seems spot on).
The Hawkhurst Gang resurrects a very grim moment in Chichester history – and turns it into a very worthy addition to the city’s Priory Park centenary celebrations.
Performances in the Guildhall in Priory Park in Chichester are Wednesday 26 & Thursday 27 September, 7.30pm; and Saturday 29 September, 3pm & 7.30pm. Tickets: £12.
The piece then moves to the Weald & Downland Living Museum, Singleton PO18 0EU on Saturday 6 October, 3pm & 7pm; and Sunday 7 October, 3pm. Tickets: £12 | Disabled & single helper £10 | annual members £10
Recommended age: 12 and over. Many references to off-stage violence.