Looking back on ten memorable years of the Kings Theatre

PROUD Kings Theatre Trust vice-chairman Ian Pratt.   Picture: Ian Hargreaves (113210-2)
PROUD Kings Theatre Trust vice-chairman Ian Pratt. Picture: Ian Hargreaves (113210-2)
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There’s a buzz of anticipation in the air as the audience arrives and files through the foyer, looking forward to an evening of entertainment.

It’s been this way at the Kings Theatre in Southsea ever since 1907.

But back in 2001, the curtain was in danger of coming down for the last time.

In 1999 all professional productions had been stopped and the space was only rented out to amateur groups.

Then in 2001 came the news that the ornate Edwardian building was in serious danger of becoming a ‘super pub’ after J D Wetherspoons put in a bid to take it over.

The theatre was only saved after thousands of people signed a petition. Now, a decade on, it is still open for business thanks to the creation of The Kings Theatre Trust.

The charity controls the day-to-day running of the building and its restoration.

Ian Pratt, vice-chairman of the trust, began working backstage on lighting in 1985.

He explains: ‘I moved to Portsmouth because I was in the navy. Then I was asked if I’d like to help out with the lighting.

‘After that I ended up getting involved with the Portsmouth Players and other amateur companies.

‘It wasn’t until 2000 that Southsea councillor Paddy Drew started the trust. She came backstage and said: “I’m putting together a team to save the theatre.”’

‘Of course I had to help. By this point it was pretty clear that the theatre was looking a bit worn-out. That’s why I got involved.’

Originally opened on September 30, 1907, with a production of Charles I, the theatre has changed hands many times over the years.

It was owned by the Portsmouth Theatre Company until 1964, before being bought by Commander Reggie Cooper and his wife Joan.

In 1990, it was sold again to Portsmouth City Council, which now leases it to the trust.

But the theatre could have easily fallen into disrepair without AKTER (Action for Kings TheatrE Restoration) fighting to keep it open.

Since then the theatre has had £2m pumped into it – and there is still a long way to go.

Ian says: ‘The theatre was really struggling and we desperately needed investment.

‘It was hard enough to get people to come and see the shows, it was just like a downward spiral.

‘We had over 26,000 signatures on the petition to keep it, which at the time was the biggest petition to save a theatre in the country.’

Even with such huge support, the theatre’s recovery from the lows of 2001 has been an uphill battle.

But in 2005 it hit a milestone when it secured its first week-long professional production since the trust took over the theatre – Joseph And The Technicolour Dreamcoat.

Two years later in 2007, 100 years since the theatre opened, the main auditorium was restored, with £30,000 of scaffolding put up to try to repair the ceiling.

‘It was amazing what was underneath 100 years’ worth of smoke stains,’ says Ian.

‘There was all this gold leaf and such fantastic oil paintings.

‘We literally made a floor right at the top of the auditorium. We even had a party up there once.’

As the trust celebrates 10 years of running the theatre, its members are only too aware that they will need to work hard to ensure it is still going in another 10 years’ time.

Ian says: ‘The thing is, this beautiful Edwardian playhouse has suffered from 50 years of benign neglect. No-one has invested anything in it.’

He adds: ‘There have been many times when you look at the hill that’s got to be climbed and wonder, “How on earth am I going to do it?”

‘A good example is that we’ve spent £2m on the building in the past 10 years and somebody said: “Where did that money come from?” It came in grants, some came from the council and, to be honest, it came because people wanted it to.

‘We even collected pounds and pennies from the buckets that went round after performances.’

Today, the Kings receives £114,000 a year from Portsmouth City Council to help with day-to-day running costs.

It also gets funding from The Foundation for Sports and the Arts, but little else.

Ian adds: ‘Covering the costs of a theatre doesn’t mean just putting on one show.

‘You’ve got to keep going at it and make people come back.

‘I’ve had the most fantastic 10 years watching this place come alive again.

‘I mean, my children have grown up here now. Every day I’m reminded of what we’ve achieved.’

Apart from celebrating 10 years of the trust, the theatre has reached another milestone with its first co-production, Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The play, which was performed last night and is on again tonight, is being staged with The Icarus Theatre Collective.

Having performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe throughout last month, the company will take it on tour around the country when it leaves Southsea.

For the trust, it’s another step towards the future.

Ian explains: ‘It’s been launched as a co-production. When we can, if we can send tours out around the country it will be just brilliant, both for the company and for the city.’

MAKING MORE IMPROVEMENTS

The Kings Theatre Trust Ltd is now focusing on the Crocus Project, which aims to improve education facilities at the theatre.

A total of £32,000 has been given to the theatre by the Foundation For Sport And The Arts to refurbish areas that have long needed attention.

The Irving Room is undergoing a full restoration to become an archive, heritage and presentation room and will also be used as the Upper Circle Bar.

In another bid to improve its educational services, the theatre is refurbishing the Long Bar into an activitybased room for children and young people.

Such areas will be used by the newly-formed Kings Youth Theatre to give budding actors the chance to learn about, and take part in, theatre projects.

Renovations are scheduled to finish next summer.

EXHIBITION

To celebrate 10 years of The Kings Theatre Trust, the theatre is holding an exhibition of quotes from stars who have supported it.

Included are Ken Dodd, Jimmy Osmond and Roy Hudd.

Patrons of the theatre, actresses Kate O’Mara, Lisa Riley and Dilly Keane, have also provided quotes encouraging people to visit the Kings.