On Thursday, 14th September, SPT trustees Christian Skelton and Keith Batchelor visited the historic Groundlings Theatre in Portsmouth for a guided tour as part of “Heritage Open Week”.
Thursday, September 21, 2023
The Groundlings Theatre Trust, which operates the theatre, was awarded a Community Ownership Fund Grant in March to help purchase the Grade II listed theatre. The building features a similar-sized auditorium to the Selsey Pavilion, located upstairs above the entrance foyer and an extensive wardrobe department.
Fortunately, we were relieved that the tour was delayed due to the horrendous traffic jams we had experienced getting into the heart of Portsmouth. We even had time to sample an offering from the bar!
We met volunteers, all dressed as characters from the building’s illustrious past, who recounted the history of the building. The theatre was built in 1784 as the home of the Portsea Beneficiary Society and the Beneficial School and remained a place of education until 1962. It was one of the first purpose-built free schools in the country and gave the poorest boys access to education. In 1837, it became one of the first co-educational schools in the country with the admission of girls.
The Beneficial Society held notable events, including Strauss conducting an orchestra before Queen Victoria. Charles Dickens’ mother even went into labour at a naval dance! We also learnt that Ayers Rock (now Uluru) in Australia was named after Sir Henry Ayers, a former pupil of the Beneficial School.
The theatre stage is relatively large and can accommodate a big pantomime cast. The theatre also operates a popular drama school with an extensive wardrobe department under the first-floor auditorium. About 75% of the events staged at the theatre are in-house productions, a fantastic achievement for a small, predominantly volunteer-led theatre company.
The Groundlings Theatre is also known for its paranormal activity. Ten ghosts share the building, from murdered ‘ladies of the night’ to the former caretaker who fell to his fate down a flight of stairs.
We both felt we had learned a lot from the experience and were struck by many similarities that the Selsey Pavilion shares with Groundlings as a performance space. We wish them the best of luck in trying to negotiate the sale of the beautiful building with its private owner.