A city bursting with culture

FESTIVAL Portsmouth Festivities got the crowds dancing
FESTIVAL Portsmouth Festivities got the crowds dancing
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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Theatre, music, literature, the graphic arts, comedy, festivals and so much more – Portsmouth is bursting with culture.

On any day of the week you might be able to enjoy a musical at the Kings Theatre, an indie gig at the Wedgewood Rooms, a classical or rock concert at the Guildhall or a contemporary visual arts exhibition at the Aspex Gallery.

The city to some may be synonymous with maritime history, but to people living and breathing it the arts are well and truly alive.

Cllr Lee Hunt, Portsmouth City Council’s executive member for culture, says: ‘The city has a buzz and it is one of the top places in the UK that people want to visit.

‘We are even getting people from abroad who come to the city, and tourism is growing.

‘It’s not just the highbrow entertainment you find here, but also the grass-roots culture in pubs, with live music for example which is in the blood of people living in this great city.’

Portsmouth is lucky to have two historic theatres – the Kings in Southsea, which dates back to 1907, and the New Theatre Royal in the city centre, built earlier in Victorian times.

The Kings is fast establishing itself as a major venue, attracting not only the larger local music theatre companies but also big West End shows such as Blood Brothers next month.

The New Theatre Royal hosts smaller touring companies and brings Shakespeare’s Globe to the city for open-air productions, but the theatre itself is set to get a lot bigger after a forthcoming multi-million-pound redevelopment of the stage and the backstage area, newly boosted by £291,000 funding from the Arts Council.

On a smaller scale, the Groundlings Theatre in Portsea puts on excellent productions, many involving children from its successful drama school. One of its stars, 13-year-old Eddie Manning, was part of a West End production of Into The Woods that won an Olivier Award.

Caroline Sharman, director of the New Theatre Royal, says: ‘The theatre will soon undergo a regeneration, but we’re already planning to take our brand to new and alternative venues, possibly in the streets or even on the seafront.

‘There will of course be tough times ahead for all the arts, so we are going to have to be terribly creative and collaborative.

‘What I love about this city is the enthusiasm of all pockets of society for the arts – especially among schoolchildren and young people with whom we work closely to help raise their aspirations.

‘There’s real talent in Portsmouth and I think the possibilities are huge.’

Portsmouth’s amateur dramatics scene is also thriving. One Off Productions attract audiences from more than 50 miles away to their performances of school set texts, and CCADS are a hugely successful with their eclectic choice of plays and musicals that attract a wide range of audiences.

The Southsea Shakespeare Actors’ claim to fame is a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the only amateur company to have staged all of Shakespeare’s plays at least twice.

Actress Sheila Hancock, who is chancellor of the city’s university, says: ‘Portsmouth has two of the most beautiful theatres in the country.

‘The New Theatre Royal will be a state-of-the-art theatre and a number one touring date after it is refurbished.

‘There is a huge amount of potential in this city and I never cease to be amazed at how much talent there is – recently I was at an event in the Spinnaker Tower and was amazed to see so many people besotted with poetry and folk music.

‘This city is full of history, literature and culture – it is incredibly exciting. The truth is that Portsmouth has everything going for it except blowing its own trumpet.’

Portsmouth is currently building up to its biggest annual arts show – the Portsmouth Festivities, themed this year around the city’s role as a centre of excellence for cosmology, astronomy and space technology.

The 11-day event will offer classical music, theatre, film, talks, poetry, children’s shows and exhibitions at several venues.

Festivities chairman James Priory says: ‘Even during the economic recession the audiences have grown – last year we had up to 25,000 visitors who attended.

‘The idea of this year’s theme is to put Portsmouth on the map not necessarily for its historic past but for its future.’

Theatres and festivals aside, our great waterfront city is spoilt with the number of high-profile bands and comedians who tour local clubs and established music venues, including the Cellars at Eastney, the Wedgewood Rooms, Pyramids and Guildhall.

Portsmouth also boasts the largest number of concerts by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra outside its Poole base, and an annual chamber music series, Music in the Round, featuring internationally-acclaimed performers.

On top of that, the city offers a range of high-quality choral groups from the large-scale Portsmouth Choral Union to the select Renaissance Choir.

Steve Pitt, chairman of The Culture Partnership, says: ‘When you are busy saying nothing ever happens in Portsmouth, look further than the end of your nose because there’s likely to be something happening very close to where you are.’

Writers and Artists inspired by Portsmouth

Portsmouth is also a great literary city, most notably the birthplace of Charles Dickens whose bicentenary will be celebrated in 2012.

It was also home to Arthur Conan Doyle, who penned his first Sherlock Holmes book in Southsea while practising as a GP, and HG Wells whose apprenticeship at the Southsea Drapery Emporium inspired his novels The Wheels of Chance and Kipps.

Jane Austen was influenced to write Mansfield Park while visiting her two brothers in Portsmouth, who were both serving in the Royal Navy.

Rudyard Kipling spent six years in Southsea as a child – and despite having a horrible experience with his host family, he admitted it may have hastened the onset of his literary life.

George Meredith, the famous 19th century novelist and poet, was born in Portsmouth, and prolific author of children’s books Percy Westerman was Portsmouth born and bred.

The marine artist Lionel William Wyllie lived and died here, novelist and scientist Sir Walter Besant was born here, and author and aero-engineer Neville Shute worked here.

Kelli Bianchi, 21, crowned Portsmouth’s first Poet Laureate this year, says: ‘Portsmouth is brilliant because it is steeped in literary history, but at the same time there are so many events and opportunities for young writers or people who want to learn to write.

‘All my work was written here in Portsmouth and I still get excited every morning when I walk to the university and go past Kipling’s house.’

Colin and Marie Telford, of the Hayling Island Bookshop that runs the literary festival Bookfest with the council’s library service, have been in talks with major publishers to try to convince more authors to launch books in the city.

Colin says: ‘We believe Portsmouth should be the principal literary destination for author tours. We’ve had high-profile authors visit including Jacqueline Wilson, Terry Pratchett and Andrew Motion, but we could do a lot more.’

Passion for Portsmouth

Passion for Portsmouth is a News-backed campaign to celebrate the city and all it has to offer, whether you live here, work here or are visiting.

The initiative is about improving the city’s image and is supported by businesses and organisations across the area, including Portsmouth FC, Highbury College, Marriott Hotels, Express FM, IBM and Portsmouth City Council.

This week and in coming weeks, we’ll be highlighting some of the many things that make Portsmouth so special.