A Brief History of Hillbark Players

Click here to see our 50th Anniversary celebrations

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Hillbark Players was founded in 1964 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth.

The idea was the brainchild of Tom Gittins, a prominent local actor and Malcolm Ash, a prominent local director, who discovered that none of the local amateur companies on the Wirral planned to mark the anniversary. Also closely involved in setting up the production was Robin Nelson, a local musician, student and member of the Footlights Club in Cambridge.

Malcolm Ash Tom Gittins Robin Nelson

They set about finding a suitable venue for an open-air production and with the aid of Councillor Mrs D.M.C.(Dolly)Higginbottom - chairman of Hoylake Urban District Council, obtained permission to use the grounds of Hill Bark, which had recently been acquired by the Council for use as an old people's home.

Formerly the home of Sir Ernest Royden, Bart, the house was originally built in 1891 on Bidston Hill and was known as Bidston Court. It was taken down in 1930, every single beam and stone was labelled and cross-referenced and it was re-erected on its present site near the small village of Frankby. The half-timbered Tudor courtyard is a replica of Little Moreton Hall near Congleton. The ground behind the house sloped sharply down into Thurstaston Common, but in front of the house, up a flight of sandstone steps was a grassy area, just the right size for what Tom and Malcolm had in mind. Here they would build their stands, with the audience under cover and the house as a perfect backdrop.


                                     Hillbark House - pre-1964

 



Hillbark - Original location

Click here to see a short newsrell clip of the workmen moving the original Bidston Court from Bidston brick by brick.

 

The play chosen was "Much Ado about Nothing" and it ran for a week from 6th to 11th July 1964. Unfortunately, due to high winds and driving rain, the second night was cancelled. The play was so successful that it was decided to put on another production the following year. The Hillbark tradition had begun. Productions were presented every year from 1964 until 1968, under the chairmanship of Mrs Higginbottom. The strain and effort of mounting an annual production eventually proved too much and the productions stopped.

Hillbark House in 1964.


There was an attempt to re-start the Players in 1972, with a production of 'Peer Gynt', but although auditions were held and the play was cast, the production never took place. This is how the local paper reported it.

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At the same time, approaches were made to Glenda Jackson to become President of Hillbark Players. She remained President until 1992.


Then in 1975, under the chairmanship of Eric J Murch, a local business man and official of Riverside Players, Hillbark Players was re-formed.

The Players returned in the 1976 heat-wave with "The Comedy of Errors" and the tradition was reborn. It was decided that productions would be every 2 years and that has continued till the present day.


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Hillbark finally closed in 1989 and attempts were made to sell it. Although the House was empty, Hillbark Players got permission to perform in the grounds in June 1990.

After the 1990 production, the House was closed and ultimately sold to become a private hotel, so Hillbark Players went on the road. They presented their 1992 and 1994 productions at Poulton Hall, Bebington, the home of the Lancelyn-Greens, who already had a history of presenting open-air productions in the grounds of their home - see 1960 Midsummer Night's Dream. The Players were invited into Royden Park in 1996, in a location adjacent to Hillbark House ( on the old site of the tennis courts which used to belong to the House ).Thus Hillbark Players had returned, if not onto the grounds of Hillbark House, then as near as they possibly could.

A conscious decision was taken after the 1998 production to move performances to the odd years (when it would not clash with major European or World Cup football tournaments!). The next performance took place in 2001 and productions have continued every two years since then.



This is an article from Playlight magazine, for whom our Lighting expert Ron Lamb was a director. It gives a good idea of what the set was like in the days when we used stands provided by Jon Sanders and Company.

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         Hillbark Hotel in 2015