A drama group was born in Northwich in 1946, as part of the local Arts and Music Society, and when the parent body had to suspend activities two years’ later, the offspring decided to go it alone. It had 32 members and put on its first play on a stage with a pillar in the centre! Such was the formation of the Harlequin Players Club, still going strong 69 years’ later, with a permanent base for the last 30 years and a local reputation second to none.
The first productions were presented in the Bath’s Hall, a room in the Railway Hotel, Hartford (now The Coachman) where they learned to cope with the offending pillar. The first play was “George and Margaret,” a comedy by George Savory and celebrated the first night of the Harlequin Players on Wednesday 27th November 1946. Rehearsals were conducted in the showrooms of the Northwich Gas Company. A programme of one-act plays was projected for the following spring with the triple bill of “Mr Sampson,” “The lovely miracle” and “Two gentlemen of Soho” being presented for two evenings in March 1947.
From the outset, it was stated that a dedicated theatre with a raked auditorium was a priority and it was with some relief when the Players moved to an empty out-building at the back of the Greenbank Hotel, Hartford, in 1949. And no wonder. This Little Theatre was to have everything an amateur dramatic society could wish for, except size. Another drawback was its position, slap bang next to the Chester-Manchester railway line, so, when trains passed, the audience’s lip-reading skills were put to the test!
In addition to the 50 seat auditorium, there was a rehearsal room (added in 1951,) coffee room, effects room and store room, all created by sheer hard work on the part of the members. One improvement was carried out professionally, thanks to an anonymous donation of £250. The money was given by a member in 1966 on condition that it was used to install toilets and to give a facelift to the foyer. There was a time when the Harlequin Players could not even offer its patrons coffee in the interval, so in 1965 it was decided that this inhospitable state of affairs must end. An urn was borrowed from the Red Cross in Knutsford and a member who lived near the theatre made the coffee at her home and other members would slip out to collect it as the interval approached. The crockery was borrowed from Hartford County Secondary School, as were the girl pupils who served it. As a reward, they were allowed to wash up afterwards, at a single cold tap.
In 1965, record membership of 285 was announced at the AGM.
The Harlequin Players entered their first Drama Festival in 1966.
To celebrate the 21st anniversary of formation of the Harlequin Players, a dinner dance was held on 5th May 1967 at The Royal George Hotel in Knutsford, with a menu including poached halibut, casserole of chicken and strawberry Melba.
Examination of the playlist over the first twenty five years of the society shows a willingness, an eagerness to embrace not only the stock amateur society fodder, such as Wilde, Coward, Williams, Maugham and Eliot, but also works by the emerging playwrights of the 1950s, Rattigan, Osborne and Miller. This virile approach was continued through the 70s and 80s with programmes strongly supported by the works of Ibsen, O’Neil and Shakespeare along with the new generation of writers, such as Ayckbourn, Simon, Nichols and Stoppard.
The first twenty five years were celebrated at a private dance in Knutsford, with guest of honour, Eric Hall, who had been Treasurer of the Harlequin Players across the whole period, being awarded life membership by Chair, Charles Rolfe and Harry Harper, Secretary, on behalf of the Harlequins.
In 1973, the Greenbank Hotel decided that that it wished to develop the outbuilding housing the theatre for their own purposes, forcing the Harlequin Players into over ten years of itinerant existence. The next year, a new theatre was created under a five year lease in the hall of St Wilfred’s church on Witton Street, Northwich, opening the season with Oscar Wilde’s “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime.” However, after only six years, the church reclaimed these premises, with only a month’s notice given, and the second Harlequin Theatre closed its doors with “Major Barbara” by George Bernard Shaw.
In June 1977, as part of Vale Royal’s Silver Jubilee Project, the Harlequin Players contributed to an Old-time Music Hall performance on the third evening at Northwich Memorial Hall and a dance and cabaret on the fourth evening at Winsford Civic Hall.
Thus, in 1980, drama in the Northwich area was once more on the move. It settled for two years in Leftwich and Rudheath High Schools, where first rate plays such as “Blithe Spirit,” “Habeas Corpus,” “Twelfth Night,” “Stage Struck” and “The Crucible” were presented.
Meanwhile, the society was actively seeking a permanent home and in 1982 acquired small upstairs premises on Queen Street, Northwich, part of the regeneration of the then Leftwich Literage Warehouse complex, where they made sails. Fortunately, Harlequin stalwart, Margaret Thomas, worked with the warehouse owner, Paul Mack, so was able to exert pressure on behalf of the Harlequins. Having started off just as a store, this was to be their temporary home for a further two years, with capacity limited to “sixty members and friends.”
In 1983, larger warehouse premises on the same site became available for lease and, rather than see the property go to waste, Paul Mack agreed that, if the Harlequins could raise enough money to fit it out, he would support the building being converted into a theatre. Harlequin members started fundraising, with the following appeal document being issued, to try and raise £10,000 for the new theatre.
One innovative method was to complete all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in a long weekend, which was successfully achieved by twenty Harlequin members in April 1983, to provide a big sponsored boost to the appeal. Starting with “The Tempest,” members read day and night, aided by copious supplies of coffee, supplied free by Nescafe, until appropriately finishing with “All’s well that ends well.”
Another success was a giant auction, under the hammer of Nick Marsh, from the Queen Street base. All this and the more usual fund-raising activity by members, meant that work could start on the new venture. Paul Mack kept his promise and offered the first six months’ rent free, so, once again through the hard work of the membership, especially Mike Doak, Phillip Marsden, Jim Mole and Pat Hoare, with assistance from a number of young men supplied by ManPower under the YTS, walls were constructed and the inside laid out, much as it is still today.
Thus was created the Harlequin Theatre on Queen Street, Northwich, comprising an 850 square foot acting area, viewed from a 96 seat tiered auditorium, with additional space for a welcoming foyer, bar, toilets, costume and properties store, backstage storage and a mixed dressing room. A separate shed was added to the lease two years’ later, to replace “Tokyo,” in which flats, furniture and larger props etc. could be stored.
The first play in the theatre was “Cause Celebre” in October 1984, with the official opening in May 1985 by Mayor Bob Mather, who was welcomed by Chair, Mrs Pat Hoare, with a Harlequin’s rendition of “Whose life is it anyway?”
This new lease of life gave new thrust to the Harlequin Players whose 1984-85 season of plays by Rattigan, Russell, Simon and Brian Clarke was followed by a second season of five plays by Goldman, Moliere, Nichols, Ayckbourn and, once again, Russell, which rivalled any theatre, professional or not. This set a standard evidenced by an impressive list of awards and nominations from the Mid-Cheshire Theatre Guild, Cheshire Community Council, NODA, Northwich Guardian and Cheshire Theatre Guild.
Once the new theatre was established, the Northwich Folk Club began to meet there every Friday, excluding play performance nights, and have continued to meet there ever since.
To coincide with the 40th anniversary of the HPC in 1986, Terence Rattigan’s “Harlequinade” was presented, with attendance from the mayor and local MP, Neil Hamilton, and a celebratory cake. The same year, an occasional series of performances by the Harlequin Touring Cowere made, initially at Winnington Rec for the British Heart Foundation and later for a village WI group.
A number of other groups have also hired the theatre, either for a “one off” event or a series of bookings, including DAN, local drama colleges and other nomadic drama groups, as well as several dance troupes, ensuring that the building is in use for at least four days per week throughout the year.
At the end of the original 25 year lease, it was renewed on three year terms until 2012, when a six year lease was agreed, but at a vastly increased rent.
Over the years, the building has been subject to a continuing programme of improvement, initially by the notorious “Wednesday Night Gang,” including construction of a new porch in 1987 and a new ceiling in the theatre. Upholstered, tip-up seating was introduced into the auditorium, together with central heating and a regular programme of redecoration, most recently in 2013, when the venerable old boiler was also replaced. Improvements have also been made over the years to the sound and lighting systems, including an induction loop (hearing aid) system.