The Kings Theatre fights back against cash hungry production firms with bold plans for future

A SOUTHSEA theatre - which hosted a range of stars from Laurel and Hardy to Michael McIntyre and Romesh Ranganathan - is set to surpass its former glory thanks to a cash injection.

Thursday, 13th February 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Thursday, 13th February 2020, 10:03 am
Pictured: Pictures of Chief Executive Paul Woolf at the Kings Theatre, Portsmouth. Picture: Roger Arbon/Solent News & Photo Agency

The Kings Theatre Trust received confirmation of a £3 million loan from Portsmouth City Council for an unprecedented regeneration project, which will also see it develop a restaurant and rooftop bar. It still needs to fundraise £700,000 for the grand plans.

The renowned theatre in Albert Road, Southsea, is bucking the trend of failing regional playhouses, with many across the country facing demolition amid rising costs and falling revenues.

It has taken the brave step to redefine the way it works with external producers, by saying no to companies which demand unreasonable financial guarantees that ‘bleed theatres dry.’

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The theatre is instead opting for a combination of those who bring hit West End shows at a fair cost and a new generation of up and coming talent, working with the local community to produce its own shows.

In-house productions will include Annie and it will co-produce its ever-popular panto, whilst the venue is expecting to increase tickets sales to around 160,000 this year with record profits of £400k.

By securing vital council funding for the Grade II listed building, the Trust says it can now diversify what the theatre provides to fit with the modern world, expanding to include bars, a restaurant and rehearsal space.

Outspoken chief executive Paul Woolf says reliance on expensive external production companies has played a major role in the demise of regional theatres.

The 69-year-old former owner of the legendary AIR Studios, who has also produced TV, film and theatre - including the musical Calamity Jane - for over 15 years, said: ‘We have taken the step to no longer work with producers who ask for guarantees so massive they effectively bleed theatres dry, as this is what is happening across other regional venues like ours.

'We are developing a better spread of shows. We are committed to being part of the community.

'We work with the community to put on what they want - it's not always about making a lot of money. It's about challenging the audience and giving them more diversity.

‘It’s only recently that the Kings Theatre has returned to making a significant profit – just three years ago, the theatre was making a loss. This turnaround and shift change has given us the financial stability to secure this exciting agreement with the council.’

Under the regeneration plans, every inch of the building will be utilised. Three shops adjacent to the theatre will be demolished to make way for a four-storey building, featuring a rehearsal space for community groups and a new bar with food.

The Tower Room on the top floor of the theatre, which is currently used for storage, will be transformed into a unique function space and connected to a new rooftop/terrace bar.

The project is expected to make an additional contribution of £250,000 per year to the theatre.

Stars who have trodden the boards at the theatre include legendary director and actor Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward and Sean Connery, while Laurel and Hardy visited for a week in 1947.

Stephen Tompkinson is currently appearing in Educating Rita with Jessica Johnson, whilst forthcoming shows will include We Will Rock You and Thriller Live, plus stars of TV and comedy from Ben Fogle, Chris Kamara and Craig Revel Horwood to Jack Dee and Rob Beckett.

The Trust is also expanding its current list of patrons with Sir Clive Jones CBE, the former boss of ITV and TV personality John Challis, joining Hugh Dennis, Fred Dineage, Lisa Riley, Dillie Keane, Anita Harris and the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Councillor David Fuller.

Mr Woolf, a former lawyer, added: 'We have yanked the Kings Theatre into today and the future. But we are still keeping the history there - we are staying true to the heritage and the building.

'We will become a serious attraction. In the new space, we will be able to offer so much more to the community.

'People will come here for food and drink and may not even come to the theatre. We are utilising parts of the theatre that we couldn't before. Compared to other theatres, we have a more diverse idea.'

The Kings Theatre is looking to diversify their sales channels and reach new audiences in Portsmouth and beyond, by working with companies including Ticketmaster across their entire programme, which is unusual for many regional theatres.

Jayne Gross, head of sales and marketing at the theatre, said: 'We are taking what works in the West End and bringing it to the regional theatre. We are bringing the West End to Portsmouth, on stage and off.

'The thing with these beautiful old buildings is that they are not always fit for purpose for 21st century entertainment. The regeneration project is making is happen. It's quite an emotional thing for me.'

Funds for the project were today confirmed by Portsmouth City Council, including a loan of £3 million and a £300,000 grant for the theatre's regeneration cost.

The council which owns the freehold on the building, will also pay £350,000 for urgent repairs.

The theatre's trust has committed to invest £450,000 in the new project, but they still need to raise £700,000.

Mr Woolf is confident that they will reach that target through fundraising events including a special Gala evening ‘Sunday Night at the Kings Theatre’ on March 22, featuring comedian Brian Conley, Only Fools and Horses’ ‘Boycie’ – actor and new patron John Challis, Eastenders’ star Lorraine Stanley, with more star names to be announced.

Creative Director Jack Edwards, 42, says the regeneration project is a dream come true. He first performed at the Kings Theatre when he was 16 and has gone on to perform in the West End in shows like Guys and Dolls.

He said: ‘This theatre has been a massive part of my life. I’ve always called it home – I’ve done more than 1,000 shows here. This project is a dream come true.’

Mr Woolf added: ‘We’re very pleased the council agreed our business model can show that with the regeneration project, we secure the long-term future of the theatre.’

Portsmouth City Council’s cabinet member for culture and city development, Liberal Democrat councillor Steve Pitt, said: ‘Portsmouth City Council has long supported the Kings Theatre and recognises its value to the city and the continued success of Albert Road as a retail centre.

‘The plans brought forward by the Trust have gone through a rigorous series of financial tests and the council is happy that this investment is sustainable and supports the cultural regeneration of Portsmouth.’