Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

(Photo: Peter Mould and Fetch Theatre)

America Ground: the Musical goes down a storm

Life in Hastings 200 years ago was hard for many. Could free land make a difference? The arrival of the America Ground was an accidental experiment, now turned into a rollicking musical by John Knowles, Bob Tipler, and other notable talents. At the OB (Observer Building) in Cambridge Road, a full house roared its approval. Bernard McGinley reports on a version of local history that remains strangely topical.

Following severe storms in early 19th century Sussex, new land emerged from the sea, near the present Trinity Triangle. People (including transients) soon moved on to its 8½ acres, paying no rent — as nobody owned it. It became known as the America Ground, in inspiration from the then-recent rebellion in the Colonies. Authorities such as the Crown and the Earl of Chichester took a different view of this freedom.

John Knowles and Bob Tipler have devised a hugely engaging musical entertainment on the subject, directed by Dominique Gerrard. In fastflowing scenes of struggle and poverty by the seaside – fishing, hawking baskets, storm damage, smuggling, songwriting, the ‘Captain Swing’ riots, dancing – tensions are laid out among the ruined boats and lime kilns. Is the town ever to move past drinking, fighting and dressing up?      

The musicians (Rufus Stone, Caitlin Roberts, Richard Moore) support a hardworking ensemble. The singable songs include A Storm’s A-Coming, What D’ya Know (Where Did it Go?), The Hard Times of Old Hastings, and Kipling’s A Smuggler’s Song:

Five-and-twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark —
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk . . .

(Photo: Peter Mould and Fetch Theatre)

Up the social scale, business dealings are indicated by people such as an opium dealer and a slaver. Respectability knows local corruption. Speculators and dealmakers get busy: too much is not enough.

America Ground is good on the layers of history, often oddly familiar (as in warning of the dangerous quality of the local water). Screened clips of reenacted scenes of Yes Minister (with wooden-panelled Whitehall played well by Bob Tipler’s Albion) show London discussions on the unacceptable status of the new land near Hastings beach — and official disdain for Bexhill (very funny). Similarly, public unrest of two centuries ago uses the language of modern sports commentaries. Elsewhere it’s ‘pitchforks and Instagram’. Someone said it’s Les Mis meets Passport to Pimlico. It is, but it’s also more than that. Hints of the Icarus story and Scorsese’s Casino are also findable.  

(Photo: Peter Mould and Fetch Theatre)

Amid issues such as the gallows tree, a public health crisis, levelling up not working, temporary housing and pressures for emigration, there’s also biting humour and engagement. How are these characters to resolve their many different problems?  


Late on, local historian Steve Peak (bearing a peculiar resemblance to John Knowles) makes a spirited intervention on the issue of historical accuracy. (Steve Peak’s book The America Ground remains available locally. For long-story-short see the mural just off Robertson Street, near the end of Trinity Street.) Yes, mainstream history’s a different genre, but this show with verve and lightness still raises questions about what happened and why, and deserves further stagings. The Land of the Free is still being sought, and fought for.

(Photo: Peter Mould and Fetch Theatre)

Credits due

Fine performances include Molly Hemsley as Molly, David Tarpey as Breed, Al Ashton as the Blind Beggar, Tom Messmer as the Councillor (and also the Judge), Elizabeth Johnson as the piratical Ruxley, and Danny Horn as both Joe and George.

The sponsorship of the local ‘Mag & Lash’ charity, the Albion pub, Rock Rose Beauty, and Hastings Commons, Arts Council England and others was essential to a memorable production. America Ground could build a loyal audience yet.

(Photo: Peter Mould and Fetch Theatre)

If you’re enjoying HOT and would like us to continue providing fair and balanced reporting on local matters please consider making a donation. Click here to open our PayPal donation link. Thank you for your continued support!

Posted 17:03 Wednesday, Jul 3, 2024 In: Performance

Also in: Performance

More HOT Stuff

    HOT is run by volunteers but has overheads for hosting and web development. Support HOT!


    Advertise your business or your event on HOT for as little as £20 per month
    Find out more…


    If you like HOT and want to keep it sustainable, please Donate via PayPal, it’s easy!


    Do you want to write, proofread, edit listings or help sell advertising? then contact us


    Get our regular digest emails

  • Subscribe to HOT