Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal was said to be one of the settings in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby.
Looking around the theatre on my way up to the Conservatory Cafe, you can still feel the ghost of Dickens and those who have trod the boards here.
‘They groped their way through a dark passage, and, descending a step or two, threaded a little maze of canvas screens and paint pots, and emerged upon the stage of the Portsmouth Theatre.
‘He looked about him; ceiling, pit, boxes, gallery, orchestra, fittings, and decorations of every kind, all looked coarse, cold, gloomy, and wretched.
“Is this a theatre?” whispered Smike, in amazement; “I thought it was a blaze of light and finery.”’
Built by Frank Matcham, one of the finest Victorian theatre designers (London Palladium, Kings Theatre), it is in the throes of redevelopment.
He was surely responsible for the café with its iconic balcony, and it looks wonderfully Victorian and theatrical thanks to an interior bar balcony of stained glass mosaic.
There are also appealing distressed blue and gold-painted panels, green-painted arched windows, ochre yellow walls and checker board flooring.
A staff member in charge of ops doesn’t hand me a menu once she has firmly decided where I should sit. A flagged-down waitress puts down a menu on the crumbs from past lunchers.
Only open between 11am and 2pm, it’s surely missing a marketing trick by not opening in the evenings too, or longer during the day. This, of course, may change when the new building behind the 19th century Grade II listed one is completed.
The simple menu offers salads (chicken and chorizo or bacon, prawns with Mary Rose sauce); sandwiches and baguettes (cheddar and chutney, Brie with cranberry, tuna crunch, fish fingers, smoked salmon and cream cheese); wraps or tart of the day (a red pepper one possibly) and a tomato and pesto oil stack.
Prices are middling at £6.50 for a salad, £4.50 for a tart, sandwiches and baguettes from £3.50 to £4.80.
An ordered, unimaginative glass of sparkling water without ice or lemon was delivered with a straw. I felt I had gone back several decades when such dullness – laziness? - was the norm.
A chicken and bacon salad in a bowl was next and was equally unimaginative. The salad leaves were past their sell-by date, plus dull cucumber, a few overcooked shards of chicken and bullet-like croutons – not a thrilling mix. The bacon made up for some of the poor quality ingredients and you had to like unbilled balsamic vinegar.
Victorian lemon cake followed, one of three cakes on show. This was quite pleasant and moist.
Drinks included two wines – red and white – and one beer, all non-specified, and filter coffee (no cappuccino, latte or other coffees that people look for). Odd that this investment is not made as it swiftly makes profits.
Would I return to the Conservatory café for the food? Not in its present lacklustre guise. But I would return for the quirky, brilliant building which was saved by the Theatre Royal Society.
Maybe we’ll eventually get a café to mirror this fabulous theatre. My bill was just under £10, not including service.
Conservatory Café, 20 Guildhall Walk, Portsmouth, PO1 2DD
Open 11am until 2pm.
Disabled access: It’s on the first floor.
How to get there: Follow the signs for The Guildhall on Guildhall Walk.
The theatre is on the left. Parking is on the street at meters or in nearby car parks.
Ratings (maximum *****)