‘The theatre is very important to the local community’

CRUCIAL STAGE William Dawson,  chairman of the Campaign To Save St Peter's Theatre.  Picture: Malcolm Wells (121685-4692)
CRUCIAL STAGE William Dawson, chairman of the Campaign To Save St Peter's Theatre. Picture: Malcolm Wells (121685-4692)
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Amateur dramatics groups have long had a strong presence in Portsmouth. The city has become known for high-quality productions and showcasing talented actors and actresses who have gone on to make it into the professional ranks.

But without stages to perform on, the show cannot go on.

SUPPORT Dillie Keane

SUPPORT Dillie Keane

St Peter’s Theatre in Somers Town opened in 1924 and is one of only six amateur stages in the country with a fly tower for changing scenes.

It’s used by am dram companies as well as children’s stage groups. But its future is under threat.

Vicar of St Peter’s Church, The Rev Alex Hughes, says it has been subsidising the theatre for the past couple of years and can no longer afford to do so.

The church is considering either selling the hall, along with the church, and moving to a new church on another site, or redeveloping the theatre space for other community uses.

But a campaign to save St Peter’s Theatre has just stepped up a gear. Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt and well-known actor Robert Powell are already on board as patrons.

Now Portsmouth-born entertainer Dillie Keane, a patron of the Kings Theatre in Southsea, has become involved.

She says: ‘I was really surprised that this incredibly well-equipped little theatre was in danger of being knocked down.

‘I believe amateur dramatics provides an incredibly valuable social service.’

She adds: ‘It suits all different types of people because you can work backstage too and learn about the technical side, or the design or sewing – unless you’re a show-off like myself.’

With am dram groups up and down the country, Dillie believes the service they provide to the community is vital.

She says: ‘They involve all ages and I truly believe that they are incredibly valuable.’

Dillie says facilities such as those enjoyed by St Peter’s Theatre are rare and should be preserved.

She explains: ‘I think it’s very important that amateur dramatics groups have their own space to rehearse, their own dedicated space. That’s very important.’

Although St Peter’s Theatre isn’t the only am dram stage in the area, there isn’t much provision on Portsea Island.

The Kings Theatre is regularly used by the Portsmouth Players, South Downe Musical Society and CCADS, while the only other venue in the city is the Groundlings Theatre at Portsea, which hosts plays put on by the Groundlings Theatre Company, but is also is available to hire and is used by SOOP and Southsea Shakespeare Actors.

The other big venue, the New Theatre Royal, is not available for am dram groups until major redevelopment work is completed.

William Dawson, chairman of the Campaign To Save St Peter’s Theatre, first performed there in 1963 and has been part of Phoenix Players, the theatre’s resident am dram group, since 1975. He says: ‘Because the church authorities could not afford to maintain the theatre, in the past eight years the theatre users have raised £40,000 to improve the theatre.

‘This has meant more bookings for the theatre, and, of course, more income for the church. Indeed, the majority of the church’s income is from the community building.’

He adds: ‘But unfortunately, because of a diminishing congregation, the church authorities say they cannot afford the upkeep of St Peter’s Church and the community building, and the vicar and church authorities want to build a new church on another site.

‘Regrettably, the vicar has already announced that no bookings will be accepted for the theatre after the end of 2012.’

He says that if St Peter’s Theatre has made a £2,000 loss, as the church maintains, theatre groups could put on a special evening to raise the money.

Talking about opportunites for amateur dramatics in the city, William says: ‘ I really don’t think there is enough out there. Last year the city council provided us with some other possible venues, but six of them are not even in the city.’

He adds: ‘Venues such as the Kings are completely out of the range of the smaller groups.

‘Most of the other venues are unsuitable and simply unavailable, such as community centres which have a lot of other things going on.’

William says the church might only have a small congregation each week, but the theatre brings in thousands of people a year.

‘The theatre is very important to the local community. Last week about 300 people were there and I worked out that last year about 5-6,000 people came to the theatre.’

So far 890 people have signed an online petition to save St Peter’s Theatre, with another 3,000 signing a paper version.

Rev Hughes says: ‘Someone from the church has put together a list of church venues where amateur dramatics could be done. I think we have to be flexible on both sides.

‘The issue is what they require in space, which is very demanding. They want to go into a space and have sole occupancy for a week, but that could be a week in a year. It’s not sustainable.’

· Campaigners are holding a meeting at Landport Community Centre in Charles Street, Landport on Friday at 7pm.

· For more on the campaign, go to stpeterstheatre.webs.com

’A TRAGEDY’

Another amateur dramatics group in the Portsmouth area that has its own building is Titchfield Festival Theatre.

It rents a property and puts on roughly two shows a month.

What is particularly unusual among local am dram groups is that TFT has a space where it is the sole user.

TFT’s Kevin Fraser says: ‘We wouldn’t be able to do so many plays without it.

‘A lot of community halls can’t allow such frequency and groups can’t afford places like the Kings. We have that flexibility.’

On the possibility of St Peter’s Theatre in Portsmouth being lost, he say: ‘I think it would be a tragedy, one less space for theatre companies to use.’

OTHER VENUES

The main venues outside the city that are available for amateur dramatics groups to hire include The Spring in Havant, which is used by Bench Theatre and HumDrum, the Ashcroft Arts Centre and Ferneham Hall in Fareham, used by Fareham Musical Society and South Downe Musical Society and the Hayling Island Station Theatre.

James George from HumDrum says: ‘Not everyone wants to perform on big, traditional stages such as the Kings Theatre in Southsea.

‘That’s why HumDrum moved to The Spring in Havant – we love it.’

David Penrose, secretary of Bench Theatre, adds: ‘The Bench is lucky to be one of the few companies in the area with a permanent and well-equipped base.

‘In Portsmouth such possibilities have been eroded, though there are some very good spaces available for hire.’