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 and drama school 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 building operated as a school until 1962 with ex-students still living in the area. It then had various uses, including as a youth training centre. It was almost burnt to the ground by a stray firework in 2004 but survived and in 2010 it was bought by local actor and artistic director Richard Stride who, with the help and support of local volunteers, brought the building back into serviceable condition and opened it as Groundlings Theatre. The first live performance was presented in May 2010.

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. The space can also be used in the round, for studio space, or for 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 It is also included on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register, noted as in poor condition and a state of slow decay.

In 2015, Historic England helped the theatre undertake a conditions survey on the building that 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.

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) to seek funding support for 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. The application has since been withdrawn.

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.

The condition of the building remains a concern and while some repair works have been carried out new urgent works are coming to light. This has included concerns regarding the safety of the ceiling in the Venetian Room which has subsequently had to be taken out of use, impacting revenue.

The Groundlings Theatre Trust has entered discussions with the owner over purchasing the building. It is being supported in this by Portsmouth City Council with input from both Theatres Trust and Historic England.

Should sale discussions by The Groundlings Theatre Trust fail, there is concern that the car park site which provides working access and an outdoor performance area as well as generating income for the theatre, could be subdivided from the theatre building and separately leased / sold.

Theatre potential

The theatre and drama school plays an active role in its community, working closely with local schools, 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, from volunteering and work experience through to the chance for amateur actors and creatives to work alongside professionals.

The auditorium is usually set up for audiences to be seated cabaret-style, giving performances 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 and houses a costume department with hundreds of 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 and retain the pride of place the building has in the community.

In 2020, the Groundlings Theatre Trust was awarded a Theatres Trust 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. Works completed in spring 2021.

The work supported through the Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme work helped 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 of the main façade. Volunteers have also renewed the bar and flooring inside.

In October 2021, the building’s owner decided to put the Groundlings up for sale. The original price asked was £1m but it was 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. This would normally trigger the start of a moratorium and signal the beginning of a six-month timeframe for a community interest company to raise the funding to acquire the building. However, while The Groundlings Theatre Trust has a lease remaining on the building, 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 Groundlings Theatre Trust is currently in discussions over a sale with the owner and has applied to the Community Ownership Fund to help fund the purchase. This fund is specifically aimed at supporting communities to purchase local community assets and amenities and run them as sustainable community businesses.

Portsmouth City Council is supportive of The Groundlings Theatre Trust purchase of the building, offering them match funds as part of the Community Ownership Fund application.  It has also helped The Groundlings Theatre Trust with revenue grants, resource and guidance and the area in which the theatre sits formed part of the City’s, sadly unsuccessful bid to the government’s Levelling Up Fund.

The Groundlings Theatre Trust has also recently successfully applied for a grant from the Architectural Heritage Fund for works including architectural technical design for the urgent works to the building; fundraising and project management support in the lead up to purchase.

The Groundlings Theatre Trust is also looking to submit a bid to the council’s Community Infrastructure Levy grant scheme for repair works to the Venetian Room ceiling and is also making applications to local funders for repair and improvement works.

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.

Update March 2023

Groundlings Theatre Trust has been successful in its application to the government’s Community Ownership Fund. Read the full story.

Main and interior photo The Groundlings Theatre Trust.