Groundlings Theatre: A Mix of History and Drama

September 6, 2015 4:45 pm

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The Groundlings Theatre is a history-soaked establishment in Portsea, where you half-expect Captain Jack Sparrow to swagger in. Situated close to Portsmouth’s historic dockyard, the Grade II listed Georgian building has a fascinating and slightly macabre past.

Upstairs was always an entertainment and meeting space, and it was here that Elizabeth Dickens’ waters broke before she gave birth to her son, Charles. He would go on, of course, to become one of the country’s most celebrated novelists and highlight the plight of the lower classes. He would take great interest in educational provision for pauper children, so it is apt, perhaps, that the Beneficial Society ran a school for poor boys downstairs. Next to displays dedicated to various theatrical productions – the original whipping posts with their metal hooks still remain – punishment records deck the walls.

“We try very hard to preserve the history of the place,” explains Theatre Manager Jim Wringe, during a tour of the ‘old Benny’.

Groundlings, founded in 2000 in London by professional actor Richard Stride, moved five years ago into what had become a fire-damaged wreck. A team of volunteers helped restore the site and today the company offers a wide range of cultural experiences for the Portsmouth community. Richard chose the name Groundlings after the epithet given to Elizabethan patrons of the Globe who couldn’t afford to sit on one of the three levels of the theatre, explains Jim.

“That is what we are about,” he says, “theatre for everyone at reasonable prices.”

One example is the annual Umbrella Festival, held in honour of early brolly pioneer Jonas Hanway, who went one further than Dickens by being born on the site. Jim says: “We really push for local schools and people to get involved. It’s a free arts fair with dance groups, street artists, musicians and magicians.”

The theatre stages a mix of amateur and professional shows and there is a drama school for anyone aged from six to sixty-plus. “It’s not just a drop-off point,” says Jim. “You leave having learned something. We teach real acting skills.” Many students who took their first dramatic steps at Groundlings have gone on to attend accredited schools in London and have launched acting careers.

There is an extensive wardrobe department with over 11,000 costumes covering every era up to contemporary. This comes in useful when Groundlings provides the actors for the yearly Victorian Festival of Christmas at the dockyard. The building is one of the most haunted in the city according to Jim, and no, it’s not the festival actors trying out their talents on the visiting psychics and ghost hunters. “We’ve had investigators come from as far as the USA and they have all managed to pinpoint the same distinct phenomena – with some variations of course,” he laughs.

Despite its position in the heart of historic Portsmouth, Groundlings remains something of a hidden gem: “A day never goes by where I don’t get an email with someone saying ‘I’ve lived in Portsmouth all my life – and I never knew you were here!’”.

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