On the gloriously sunny evening of Sunday 18th June, we attended the press preview night of Hillbark Players’ Hamlet production in the idyllic setting of Royden Park. From Monday 19th June through until Saturday 24th June, the beautiful Wirral park plays host to the theatre group’s huge Shakespeare showcase — having attended on the Sunday, we can confirm that it’s a truly magical experience not to be missed!

Over £50,000 (all self funded and non-profit) had been spent on producing the week long extravaganza and the six months of hard work had led up to this point. Hillbark Players is a long standing presenter of open-air Shakespeare in the North West, having been founded in 1964 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, and has presented a production every other year since. We were privileged to experience the theatre group’s first ever production of Hamlet — and we were not disappointed!

With the sun beaming down and the birds singing, we followed the signs through the woods until we discovered the site and the impressive 490 seat theatre. After talking with Director, Nick Sample, and Assistant Director, Ruth Stenhouse, it was soon time to get settled with our Prosecco and strawberries and watch the drama unfold. With this being a three hour performance, we were treated to an edited and arguably more action packed play and the wooded backdrop and sounds of nature provided the perfect setting.

From the off, we were thrust straight into drama with the death of Hamlet’s father and in the true style of Shakespeare theatre, some of the characters entered the theatre from behind the audience — giving us that all encompassing feeling. It was clear money had been spent, with smoke effects and dramatic music from the surrounding speakers. The music throughout was often poignant and powerful, adding to the allure of the live performance.

As the plot unfolded and we were taken through the scenes, one thing remained particularly striking — the calibre of each and every one of the actors. In each case, the delivery was concise and clearly well refined through months of practise. Hillbark Players had offered open auditions for the roles and as such had recruited some of the most experienced acting talent in the North West — that said there were some debuts in live theatre on display, although no-one would have noticed. All actors were deeply involved with their characters and there were some fascinating and entertaining interactions, particularly between Ophelia and her brother and of course the intense and passionate engagements between Ophelia and Hamlet.

The quality of acting throughout was indeed very impressive and it was impossible not to be completely absorbed from start to finish. I was most impressed with Adam Stubbs, who portrayed Hamlet with tireless energy and whose commanding and charming lead performance kept the audience entranced — definitely one to watch for the future. I was also mightily impressed by Charles Riley’s portrayal of Hamlet’s Uncle and new King, Claudius, with a disposition similar to Brian Blessed and the larger than life character of a true King (although Claudius is quite possibly not as warm and likeable as Brian Blessed). Both actors had a phenomenal stage presence — truly captivating.

The interval was timed perfectly, with the second half quickly producing the sequence of deaths and tragedies. The developments with the key characters were captured extremely well and it was fascinating to watch the characters change as the plot thickened. As with the first half, the acting was enthralling, but what made the second half even more entertaining to watch was the lighting and atmosphere. As dusk descended on Royden Park, the lighting effects came into their own and the atmosphere was electric! Shakespeare under the stars on a summer night — a quite unique experience!

As we all know, the Hamlet story progresses into fights and more further deaths, in an engrossing script. I found the fight scene between Hamlet and Ophelia’s brother, Laertes (played superbly by Theo Spofforth), the most entertaining scene of all. The parrying and jousting was mesmerising and the final events that followed were executed in an emphatic manner.

In summary, a fantastic evening of entertainment! The thriving music scene of Liverpool and the North West is documented so well, however much must be said about the quality of our local theatre scene — a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an evening. I think it’s also very important to keep Shakespeare alive and credit is due to Hillbark Players for such a unique production and for bringing Shakespeare into the modern world. There are so many things to do this summer but we highly recommend the huge open air Hamlet production in Royden Park courtesy of Hillbark Players. If you’re reading this before Saturday 24th June 2017, it’s not too late to attend….

The Hamlet production runs up to and including Saturday 24th June. Tickets can be found HERE

Following the production, I caught up with Director, Nick Sample, for a little Q&A:

Urbanista: What has been your favourite production you’ve been involved in as a Director over the years?

Nick: I’ve been fortunate enough to direct a lot of productions, from musicals to dramas, comedies, brilliant modern plays and Shakespeare. I seem to have been involved in some plays several times –The History Boys, which I directed last year at Altrincham’s Garrick Playhouse, having previously appeared in it as Hector twice before, or The Accrington Pals, of which I’ve directed two really memorable, moving productions, stand out.  Nearly all have great memories for me for all sorts of reasons, but I’d have to choose two particular productions that I’ve directed as being tied for both my favourite and most memorable:

Firstly, Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer, which I directed for Bebington Dramatic Society in 2002 – a fantastic play about the decline and death of Mozart. I was fortunate to have a brilliant cast and crew involved in this, led by a truly memorable performance by David Oliver as Salieri. And with Mozart’s music being integral throughout, ending with the sound of his hugely powerful Requiem filling the auditorium – I absolutely loved it.

Secondly, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which I was lucky enough to direct for Hillbark Players in 2009. This was one of those productions where everything that I had wanted to achieve with this play as a director came together brilliantly, from the staging, the wonderfully evocative costumes, the brilliant specially-composed  soundtrack, the tremendous fight scenes, and a superb cast who all came together to create a piece of theatrical magic. I’m still immensely proud of it – as, I believe, are many of the people who were involved.

Urbanista: What is your favourite Shakespeare play and why?

Nick: Well, from my previous answer it would have to be Macbeth. Although I do really like Twelfth Night.

Urbanista: Who is your favourite Hamlet character and why?

Nick: Claudius. I think that Shakespeare’s alleged ‘baddies’ are much more interesting characters – Iago in ‘Othello’, or Shylock in ’The Merchant of Venice’ (although whether he is the ‘baddie’, or just as much a victim as Antonio in that play is debatable) for example – and have a lot more depth than some of his supposed ‘heroes’. Claudius is a great, manipulative character with depth of feeling and motivation, and gives the actor portraying that role an opportunity to create something memorable.

Urbanista: If you could choose 5 actors to star in a Hamlet production, who would they be and what characters would they play?

Nick: Blimey, an impossible question to answer! There are so many… If you included famous actors who are sadly no longer with us but (in their day) would have been superb in certain roles, then you could go on and on – Robin Williams would have made a fantastic Gravedigger, for example. However, by reducing the list to people who are around and working in Britain today – and assuming I had the colossal production budget I’d need to be able to pay what all of these people would want – you couldn’t do much better (in my eyes) than having the following people involved:

I think it’s about time that Sir Kenneth Branagh played Claudius, and I’d pair him up with the quite brilliant Sarah Lancashire as Gertrude. I’d like to see Tom Hughes play Hamlet. He’s a really talented young actor who has previously worked with Matt Baker’s ‘Theatre In The Quarter’ company in Chester, but is probably best known (so far) for being Prince Albert opposite Jenna Coleman in ITV’s ‘Victoria’ last year. I believe Hugh Laurie would make an excellent job of Polonius, as would Ralph Fiennes, who is a superb comic actor (even though he hardly ever gets cast in comic roles)… and, as one of the Gravediggers, I would happily have either James Corden or Peter Kay.

Urbanista: What plans do you have in the next two years until the next Hillbark Players’ production?

Nick: A rest! Getting some sleep!… In terms of Hillbark Players, it really depends upon how this week works out (financially). Our productions cost almost £50,000 to stage, and nearly all of our income to cover that cost comes through ticket and programme sales from the current production. In recent years, we’ve started performing small-scale, bring-a-chair ‘fund-raising’ shows in the grounds of Hillbark Hotel in order to boost our finances, so we may well be doing something along those lines next year.

From a personal standpoint, I’ve been asked by Altrincham Garrick Playhouse to direct their November premiere staging of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”. Like Hillbark Players, they’re another very professionally-run organisation who hold ‘open auditions’ for every production… so if anyone is interested in being Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn or any of the myriad of characters in that play, please get in touch!


For more on Hillbark Players visit the site HERE

Full Cast: David Caldwell, Andy Jordan, Stuart Rathe, Simon Garland, Charles Riley, Dave Bolitho, Martin Riley, Theo Spofforth, Caroline Kay, Adam Stubbs, Pauline Garland, Mike Ellis, Fiona Williams, Jack Hirons, James Dorman, Charlotte Cumming, Keith Hill, Carys Cooper, Daniel Short, Gemma Davidson, Adrian Davies, Geraldine Moloney-Judge, James Kay, Alexander Breathnach, Karen Cumming, Sally Lynam

Produced & Directed by Nick Sample

Assistant Director: Ruth Stenhouse

Images courtesy of Helena Parker