Groundlings Theatre

A Grade II* listed Georgian building, originally built as a Beneficial School but with a public hall that was used for concerts, theatre 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
Pompey Properties Limited
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 a local actor and artistic director 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 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.

In October 2021, the building’s owner decided to put the building up for sale.

The Groundlings Theatre Trust, a charitable organisation and as such eligible for public funding, entered discussions with the owner over purchasing the building. An agreement to sell was reached in 2022  based on the Trust obtaining the funds through grants to do so. The Trust applied for a Community Ownership Fund grant with match funding from Portsmouth City Council. Theatres Trust and Historic England both provided support for and input into the bid. Despite being successful in the bid, the theatre was sold online from under the Trust’s feet to real estate developer, Pompey Properties Limited. The new owner’s ambition for the building remains unknown.

The uncertainties of the new ownership bring a fresh challenge for Groundlings Theatre Trust and for the building. Concerns remain over the condition of the building.

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 its own work as well as hosting visiting shows 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.

Since its establishment Groundlings Theatre Trust has been successful in fundraising to support works for both the organisation and theatre, including:

  • Theatres Trust Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme grant of £19,000 awarded in 2020 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. This work was seen as crucial in supporting future grant applications.
  • Funding for urgent repairs through Historic England’s Covid-19 Emergency Heritage at Risk Response Fund. This allowed Groundlings Theatre Trust to complete restoration works to the front elevation of the theatre including the large Venetian window, the central feature of the main façade. Volunteers also renewed the bar and flooring inside.
  • Successful application to the Community Ownership Fund to purchase the theatre, with support from Portsmouth City Council to provide match funding for the bid. Sadly, the owner took the decision to sell the building to real estate developer, Pompey Properties Limited.
  • Project Development Grant from the Architectural Heritage Fund for works including architectural technical design for the urgent works to the building and fundraising and project management support in the lead up to purchase. Due to the current change in ownership, the grant is currently on hold.

The Groundlings Theatre Trust also successfully applied to have the building listed as an Asset of Community Value in 2021 when the theatre was first put on the market.

The Groundlings Theatre Trust has made contact with the new owner in the hope of establishing a brighter future for the theatre. Initial discussions regarding the necessary structural repair works to the Venetian Room appear hopeful.

While it is not currently the owner of the building, The Theatres Trust together with Historic England will continue to advise The Groundlings Theatre Trust and support it in ongoing discussions with the new owner and with potential funders to find a route to securing both building and operation.

Update April 2024

We have awarded The Groundlings Theatre Trust a grant through our Resilient Theatres: Resilient Communities grants programme. Read the full story.

Main and interior photo The Groundlings Theatre Trust.