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 that plays an important role in its community.

A fa├žade of the theatre, showing the upper floor window.
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* / Asset of Community Value
Capacity
c. 200

Significance 

The Groundlings is a Grade II* listed Georgian theatre, originally built in 1784 as a Beneficial School and the first free school in Portsmouth. The upstairs rooms were used for concerts, theatre, and meetings. The building has connections with many notable people including Queen Victoria, who watched legendary composer Strauss in concert at the theatre, and Elizabeth Dickens who reportedly went into labour with Charles Dickens while attending a dance in the building.

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 required major work to repair the 2004 fire damage and with the help and support of local volunteers it was brought back into serviceable condition and opened with its first theatre show in May 2010. It 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.

In April 2020 charitable organisation the Groundlings Theatre Trust took over the operation of the theatre.

The theatre still retains many original features such as floorboards and fireplaces. The flat-floored theatre space currently has a stage with a proscenium arch. Steel deck staging allows the space to be used in the round, for studio space or dinner theatre.

A view from the bar on the upper floor out of the recently restored window at Groundlings Theatre.

Why is this theatre at risk?

Groundlings Theatre has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since 2020.

The theatre has suffered problems with maintenance and repair of its historic fabric and is also included on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register noted as in poor condition and a state of slow decay. In 2019 the level of risk to the building and operation heightened due to a break-in causing damage to the building and its contents. Furthermore, ongoing financial concerns led to the owner (and then operator) seeking funding support from the redevelopment of the building’s car park in a scheme for student accommodation that would have been of substantial harm to both the operation and the listed setting of the theatre. Although this application has since been withdrawn, concerns remain that the car park site which provides working access and an outdoor performance area as well as generating income for the theatre, may be subdivided from the theatre building and separately leased / sold.

In April 2020 The Groundlings Theatre Trust took over the operation of the theatre, leasing it from the current owner. However, the lease is only short term and this prevents eligibility for funding grants to carry out the essential repair work required to protect the listed fabric of the building.

Theatre potential

The theatre plays an active role in its local community, working closely with local schools, running a successful drama school and is well-used by youth groups and groups working 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 usually set up for audiences to be seated cabaret-style, giving performances here an intimate feel and making the venue quite unlike any other in the local area. The venue is also available for events, rehearsals and community hires for also offers rehearsal rooms and offices and houses an extensive costume department with more than 10,000 items available for loan.

Current situation

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

In 2015 Historic England helped the theatre undertake a conditions survey on the building. This had identified problems with the roof structure and windows. However, access to funding to cover the necessary repairs had proven difficult due to the building being in private ownership. Unfortunately, even now the theatre is operated by The Groundlings Theatre Trust, a charitable trust, and the lease terms currently prevent access to public funds. Discussions regarding the lease are ongoing and it is hoped that this issue will be resolved. The Groundlings Theatre Trust is being supported in this by Portsmouth City Council with input from both Historic England and the Theatres Trust.

The Groundlings Theatre Trust was awarded a Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme grant of £19,000 to support governance and business planning works for the organisation, and to undertake a new conditions survey for the building in 2020. Works completed in spring 2021.

The Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme work has helped support The Groundlings Theatre Trust to access funding for urgent repairs through Historic England’s Covid-19 Emergency Heritage at Risk Response Fund. This has allowed it to complete restoration works to the front elevation of the theatre including the large venetian window, the central feature to the main façade. Volunteers have also renewed the bar and flooring inside.

In October 2021 Groundlings was put up for sale, originally priced at £1m but later changed to sale by auction with a starting bid price of £650,000 plus reservation fee. The Groundlings Theatre Trust subsequently successfully applied to have the building listed as an Asset of Community Value which was granted in November 2021. The owner has since asked the council to trigger the moratorium which indicates its intent to sell the building and signals the beginning of the timeframe for a community interest company to acquire the building. However, the council has determined that this cannot legally commence. This is due to the legal definition of ‘relevant disposal’ with the Localism Act 2011 that notes that this must be ‘disposal with vacant possession'.

The Groundlings Theatre Trust has approximately a nine-year lease remaining on the building. While this lease remains, the owner is able to sell the building to whoever they chose. The council has however stressed that the building remains on its list of Assets of Community Value. The owner has now contacted The Groundlings Theatre Trust to open discussions over a possible sale.

Portsmouth City Council is supportive of the theatre and further to recent discussions with The Groundlings Theatre Trust is commissioning a consultant to help with an application to the government’s new Community Ownership Fund. This fund is specifically aimed at supporting communities to purchase local community assets and amenities and run them as sustainable community businesses.

Theatres Trust together with Historic England will continue to advise The Groundlings Theatre Trust and support it in ongoing discussions over ownership and with potential funders to find a route to securing both building and operation.

Main and interior photo The Groundlings Theatre Trust.