Groundlings Theatre

A Grade II* listed Georgian building, originally built as a Beneficial School but with a public hall that was used for concerts, theatres and meetings. It is now an active theatre, which plays an important role in its community.

Groundlingstheatreportsmouth exteriordetail c paulsjenkins march 2017 detail
Address
42 Kent Street, Portsea, Hampshire, PO1 3BS
Risk Rating
7 (Community Value: 3, Star Rating: 2, Risk Factor: 2)
Owner
Richard Stride (Private ownership)
Architect
Unknown
Date of Construction
1784
Listing
Grade II*
Capacity
c. 200

Significance

The Groundlings is a Grade II* listed Georgian theatre that is also on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk list. Built in 1784 as a Beneficial School, it was the first free school in the city. The upstairs rooms were used as a public hall for concerts, theatre and meetings. Anecdotes and ghost stories abound about the building’s history. It is known that Queen Victoria visited at least twice, on one occasion to see legendary composer Strauss in concert. Reportedly in 1812, Elizabeth Dickens went into labour with Charles Dickens while attending a dance in the building. Josephine Butler held her first campaign meeting in the building that resulted in the criminalisation of Child Prostitution and Sir Henry Ayers was pupil at the Beneficial School, citing his education as one of the reasons for his success. Honorary patrons of the Beneficial Society that owned the building and ran the school included Lord Palmerston and Prince Albert, who both donated large sums of money in 1835 to allow girls to be educated.

The school closed in 1930 due to World War II and it became a youth training centre in 1962. It was almost burnt to the ground by a stray firework in 2004 but survived and was bought in 2010 by local actor and artistic director Richard Stride, founder of the Groundlings Theatre Company, who was in search of a permanent base for his organisation. The building was subsequently named the Groundlings Theatre after the Elizabethan theatre patrons who frequented the ground (or yard) of the theatre because they could not afford the balconies.

The theatre still retains many original features such as floorboards and fire places. The flat-floored theatre space currently has a stage with proscenium arch. Versatile tiered seating or steel deck staging allows the space to be used in the round or used for studio space or dinner theatre. There are rehearsal rooms, offices and a dance studio that can be hired and the costume department offers over 10,000 items that can be borrowed. The organisation also runs a successful drama school.

The box office at the Groundlings Theatre in Portsmouth. Taken in July 2017.

Why is this theatre at risk?

Groundlings Theatre was added to the Theatres at Risk Register in 2020.

The theatre has had past problems with maintenance and repair of its historic fabric, however the level of risk to the building and operation has recently heightened for two additional reasons.

In 2019 a break in caused damage to the building fabric and computers were smashed. This has resulted in a loss of valuable data and has put the theatre in an even more financially vulnerable position. In addition, ongoing financial concerns and limited support from the local authority had led the theatre owner to consider funding support in the form of development options on the theatre's carpark. While enabling development can be of positive support to theatres, the developer-led student accommodation scheme that has been submitted for planning is of poor quality and design, showing little understanding of theatre operation and failing to take into account the building's heritage. In its current form the overall development is considered of more harm than benefit to both the historic significance of the theatre and its ongoing operation.

Theatre potential

The theatre is currently popular within its local community and well-used by youth groups and groups that work with vulnerable people. The company produces the majority of its own work and is becoming well known for the unique opportunities it provides to its local community, in particular the opportunity to work alongside professional actors and creatives.

The auditorium is a flat-floored flexible space with a proscenium arch stage. Audiences are usually seated cabaret style giving performances an intimate feel. The theatre plays an active role in its community, working closely with local schools and running a drama school on the premises.

Current situation

The Groundlings Theatre is operated by a passionate team, determined to keep this valuable resource open for its local community.

When it was purchased in early 2010 the building required major work to repair the 2004 fire damage. With the help and support of local volunteers, the building was brought back into serviceable condition and opened with its first theatre show in May of that same year.

In 2018 Historic England helped the theatre undertake a condition survey on the building. This identified problems with the roof structure and windows. However, access to funding to cover the necessary repairs has proven difficult due to the building being in private ownership. The theatre started the process of setting up a charitable trust to transfer ownership to, but was hit by problems arising from charges on the property that prevented the transition.

Ongoing financial concerns and limited support from the local authority has led the owner to seek alternative methods of funding the necessary repair works. This resulted in the theatre exploring the possibility of enabling development on its adjacent car park site to help cross-subsidise repair works and fund much needed improvements to the theatre. Theatres Trust, together with Historic England, have had positive initial meetings with the Groundlings about the principle of enabling development to support the required works. Unfortunately the developer-led scheme that has been submitted for planning permission is considered of more harm than benefit to both building and theatre operation.

A break in in October 2019 has compounded both building and financial issues, increasing the operational fragility of the organisation.

At the end of 2019 the Groundlings Theatre Trust was granted charitable status and the organisation moved from being a not-for-profit to a charitable trust. The organisation will lease the building and take over responsibility for running the company and for maintaining the venue.

Theatres Trust together with Historic England will continue to advise the theatre to ensure that any new development will benefit the Groundlings, and to support the theatre in ongoing discussions with the local authority and potential funders to find a route to securing both building and operation.

Main and interior photo Paul S. Jenkins Photography www.pictacule.co.uk