Bitter feud over Groundlings Theatre takes further twist as Charity Commission looks into concerns raised

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A bitter feud over a Portsea theatre has taken a further twist after the Charity Commission said it was looking into concerns raised by the former owner.

Long-term landlord Richard Stride said he had lived and breathed the Groundlings Theatre in Kent Street for 20 years before handing over the reins to the Groundlings Theatre Trust in 2020 to run as a charity organisation. Mr Stride remained as owner but leased the building to the trust to “take it on to the next stage”.

However, Mr Stride said he has suffered “three years of hell” since, as cracks in the relationship with the trust appeared before he was accused of reneging on a deal when opting to sell the building to an unnamed property investor rather than the trustees last June.

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Richard Stride at Groundlings Theatre, Kent Road.  Picture: Chris MoorhouseRichard Stride at Groundlings Theatre, Kent Road.  Picture: Chris Moorhouse
Richard Stride at Groundlings Theatre, Kent Road. Picture: Chris Moorhouse

Now Mr Stride has made a series of complaints against the Groundlings Theatre Trust which are currently being evaluated by the Charity Commission. “We can confirm that we have received concerns about Groundlings Theatre Trust and are currently engaging with the charity trustees,” a commission spokesperson said. All concerns are assessed against the commission’s risk framework. There is no finding of wrongdoing at this time.

Mr Stride said: “I spent 20 years building a theatre from the ashes. We visited thousands of schools, did hundreds of events and supported the whole community with our outreach projects and education projects. It was my hope that the trust would continue this good work when I left. However, this has certainly not been the case. It saddens me to see the theatre and its good name pulled down.”

Suzanna Collier, chair of the trust, said: “As a charity, we operate in an ethical manner with the correct governance and policies in place as set by the Charity Commission. We are not aware of any investigation.” She said the allegations were “false” before adding: “We take allegations such as these seriously.”

Mr Stride previously said he had been “frustrated” by delays of the sale to the trustees. He said the sale was agreed so that much-needed repairs could be carried out as soon as possible after he had been left footing the bill in the meantime. The Groundlings Theatre Trust had accused him of reneging on the arrangement which had been pivotal in the success of a Community Ownership Fund bid earlier last year and called for the sale to be cancelled.

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“The Groundlings Theatre Trust received the devastating news that their bid to buy the building from the current landlord had been rejected and another bid accepted instead. This is after the landlord had agreed to sell the building to the charity,” the trust said in a statement in June.

Mr Stride said the lease and planning protections meant the theatre could not be converted into flats and that the investor had “positive intentions”. He said last June: “I agreed to sell the building to the trustees for peanuts but they didn’t even inform me they had received the grant until several weeks later so that they could squeeze a bit more money out of me for repairs.

“I have been keen to get rid of it because I simply can’t afford the cost of repairs. I’ve waited months for the trust and it’s been delay after delay so I put it on the open market and the sale was agreed in less than two weeks. There is no way to go back on the sale now that it has been agreed.”

Meanwhile, a Trip Advisor review about an incident involving staff and a child at the Puss in Boots pantomime in December has also led to the theatre coming under fire. The disgruntled customer wrote: “Stage directors were rude to a 15-year-old and ruined the experience for her, telling her to shut up. (They were) absolutely rude and vile to a child. I think this was disgusting, (and I) wouldn’t recommend (the theatre) to anyone at all. (We were) sat at a table and chairs...I felt like I was sat at McDonald’s not at a panto.”

The theatre responding to the complaint on Trip Advisor said: “I am really sorry to hear this and certainly want to investigate more as this is not acceptable.”