Chichester: Sabotage Theatre Company offer glimpse into dark history of smuggling


Tales of smuggling come to West Sussex with travelling players, the Sabotage Theatre Company.

Usually they are horse-drawn as they travel from venue to venue. But this year, their West Sussex dates are a little bit too much out on a limb. Their aim this year is to build up a following– and return by horse next year. They will be at Kingley Vale nature reserve (meet West Stoke car park, PO18 9BN) at 3pm on May 30, followed at 6.30pm on May 31 with a date at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum at Singleton (PO18 0EU).

The company has a very strong environmental ethos, and the sets and costumes are made from recycled/reclaimed materials.

Playwright and director Zoe Hinks said: “We started off in Romney Marsh and go to places in the countryside. We are really about getting people to engage with history and places of natural beauty. We started in 2008, and our first horse-drawn tour was in 2011. We wanted to do something that was exclusively rural, and you couldn’t possibly get anything more rural than horse-drawn! The thing is that when you are using horses, you have to consider your environment as you go along. We love the idea of being travelling players. We involve the local communities. It is not just a theatrical event. It is a whole-community event when we turn up.”

Zoe, who used to volunteer at the Weald and Downland Museum, is delighted now to be touring there with her play Owlers. Weaving local history and folklore, the story is inspired by a series of real events which led to the demise of the infamous Aldington Gang of smugglers, otherwise known as the Blues, when what started as a routine landing of contraband in 1826 ended in disaster. The play follows the extraordinary lives of ordinary people when the world was turned upside down including the Lighthouse Sisters, cross-dressing tub boys and the outlawed vicar who harboured contraband in his church. Owlers was piloted last year in Kent where it sold out.

Owlers, which is an old Kentish word for ‘smugglers’, was developed using folklore and true stories surrounding the arrest of the notorious gang leader George Ransley.

“The Aldington Gang was a famous gang of smugglers that operated all the way along from Rye to Deal and Dover. Ransley was the head, and he made it all very organised. When he was arrested, it signified the downfall of smuggling in that area. We wrote the play surrounding records of his arrest and various tales, but tied it in with various folk legends and folklore.”

Zoe added: “I am the playwright and director, and I tour with them. It’s one of those companies where we all tend to take on lots of different jobs as well. Our way of touring is very communal. I will end up painting signs, and we have got a production assistant who does all sorts of things. It is all very hands on.”

The hope is to establish a foothold in West Sussex with an eye to the future: “Our aim in the future is to start touring the area with the horses. We would like to find some places in between. It takes us quite a long time to travel the horses and to walk. Usually, we do a maximum of 14 miles a day. The idea is people will fall in love with us and then next year we can fill in more shows in between East Sussex and the end of West Sussex.”