In 1924 a play reading group started meeting in Erdington. The first production, ‘In Search of a Wife’ directed by B.C. (Bertie) English, took place on 5th March 1925 at The Folkhouse, Erdington.
The group often attended rehearsals at the English’s family home, Highbury, and it is from this that we decided to adopt the name of the Highbury Players.
In 1928 John English, Bertie’s teenage son, took over as director and from 1932 the Highbury Players began performing at Church House and other venues across the region.
Building a theatre
In 1935, having been producing plays in local church halls for 11 years, the group decided that we wanted a theatre that we could call their own. It is due to the dedication, effort and hard work of these members, who had no money or rich patronage, that the modern theatre of Highbury exists today.
In 1937 a plot of land, complete with a wooden mission chapel which had been a hospital hut for World War I veterans, came up for sale in Sheffield Road, Boldmere. The original members set to, to build our first theatre. John English wrote in the Highbury Bulletin:
At last, after more than ten years, our dream of a Little Theatre is to become a fact. The site is ours, and work is in hand. This and the months to come are critical times in our career. Tremendous enthusiasm and tremendous labour will be needed. Those of us who cannot lay bricks can and must help in a thousand different ways. Insist on doing your share; it is to be our Theatre.
Some £800 (equivalent of approximately £55,000 today) was spent on building materials, with all of the building work being done by the Players. When war broke out in 1939 it was left to two actresses to lay the remaining 80,000 bricks!
The building was complete in the spring of 1942 and Highbury Little Theatre opened on 22nd May 1942 with a production of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’. Attending that evening was Sir Barry Jackson of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre who said:
It’s almost incredible that such a wonder as a new theatre, and such a perfect little theatre should come into existence amid so many difficulties.
Recording our start
In 1946, on the 21st anniversary of the inception of the Highbury Players, John English and Mollie Randle wrote a book about Highbury Little Theatre. The theatre centre itself was barely five years old but the book told how Highbury had begun, how the members had built our own theatre and what we had been doing during that adolescent period.
In 1963 the book was revised by Mollie Randle and Noel Sherwood; they saw nothing to alter in the story of those first five years but added some new pages as an epilogue on our more recent past and a prologue to our new future. If you would be interested in reading a copy, please do get in touch. More information about the history of the theatre is also available from here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highbury_Theatre
John English was awarded an OBE in 1968 for services to the theatre. It was John who, with others, had the vision to form the Little Theatre Guild of Great Britain. His deep interest and dedication to theatre continues to inspire our members long after his death in December 1998. For more information about him, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_English_(theatre_director)
Properties adjacent to the original site have been purchased as they have become available and in the 1980s a major rebuild of the premises was made possible. As with all community ventures, there will always be something more that can be done and so at Highbury we are always looking forward whilst remembering everything that has got us here.
Our present and future
Since that first production in 1942, the Highbury Players have continued to put on a full season of plays every year. This was brought to a halt by the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown in March 2020.
We continued to provide entertainment via the emailed Highbury Flyer and recordings which we published on our YouTube channel, as well as some films and live performances when the restrictions permitted this.
We are absolutely delighted to be returning in September 2021 with a full season of plays and films.
See what we have been up to during lockdown on our YouTube channel and don’t forget to click on subscribe!