The dignified and beautiful Kings Theatre - with its Italian Renaissance style of decor - is one of the best examples of the elegant Edwardian playhouses to be found in the British Isles and has most of its original features intact. It is the result of the vision and business acumen of John Waters Boughton and the architectural prowess of Frank Matcham, one of the greatest of theatre architects. Although Frank Matcham is much respected and his work is becoming well documented, J W Boughton remains largely unknown outside Portsmouth.
In the mid 1850s, the theatre manager Henry Rutley arrived in Portsmouth and took over the Landport Hall. His previous experience in both theatre and circus persuaded him that a theatre could not only be made profitable but would also be a social asset to the town. With only a licence for a limited period he had the faith to re-open the Landport Hall as the Theatre Royal in 1856. J W Boughton became his assistant and, after the death of both Henry Rutley and his successor J C Hughes, Boughton took over the reins of Portsmouth Theatres Company in 1882. One of Boughton's first decisions was to undertake a major rebuild of the Theatre Royal, re-opening it as The New Theatre Royal in 1884. To do so he engaged the most famous theatre architect of the day, C A Phipps, who had earlier built London’s Gaiety, Theatre Royal and the Haymarket. This was the Boughton style - to go for the best and to be commercially bold.
In 1891 Boughton employed the rising theatre architect Frank Matcham to rebuild and enlarge the Princes Theatre in Lake Road which had been destroyed by fire several years before. He employed Matcham yet again to remodel the New Theatre Royal in 1900, and took him into his confidence early in the new century when he began to discuss the building of a Drama and Opera House in Southsea. So confident was he that Boughton paid for the initial design out of his own pocket, only disclosing his action to his company directors in June 1906. He was reimbursed for every penny and his foresight was approved, so that this new theatre - the Kings - became the third theatre owned by the Portsmouth Theatres Company.
Opening night, 30th September 1907, was a most glittering occasion. H B Irving, son of the great Sir Henry, played three of his father's successes in the first week - Charles I, The Lyons Mail and The Bells. On the opening night, as the curtain rose, the Portsmouth Orpheus Society sang the National Anthem. J W Boughton died in 1914 but the Company continued to operate the Kings Theatre until 1964 when Commander Reggie & Mrs Joan Cooper purchased it. After the death of Cdr Cooper in 1987, Mrs Cooper was joined by local businessman Mr Ivor Barnes. In 1990 Hampshire County Council bought the Theatre, but Mrs Cooper and Mr Barnes stayed as Co-lessees.
In 2001, after a successful campaign by AKTER (Action for Kings TheatrE Restoration) to keep the theatre open, it was bought by Portsmouth City Council and leased to the Kings Theatre Trust Ltd who took responsibility for the building’s restoration and repair. This trust leased the building in turn to an operating company, Kings Theatre Southsea Ltd, who operated the building on a day to day basis and put on the programme of shows. After a seemingly successful 18 months the operating company went bankrupt, and the Kings Theatre Trust had to take over the operation of the theatre to prevent it from total closure. The Trust has been overseeing the running of the theatre since 2003, and many successful shows have been held, with many more to come.
Since its opening in 1907, many productions have visited the theatre. For example, it was the venue for the opening of the famous Aldwych Farces. After a short closure during the “phoney” war at the start of World War II, the Kings held a large programme of shows and concerts to keep up morale during these difficult years, including the popular musical concerts moved from the bombed Guildhall. Another interesting phase was the presentation of special “Flying Matinees”, with the London cast direct from their London theatres for one special afternoon performance. Many stars of stage and screen have performed at the Kings, including Sarah Bernhardt, Noel Coward, Sean Connery, Rex Harrison, Spike Milligan, Ivor Novello, Sybil Thorndike and HB Irving to name but a few of the greats of the last century.
Over the years the theatre has changed little. Administration and Box Office are now computerised, and a small dedicated staff runs the building, with much valued volunteer assistance. Backstage, most scenery is still flown and managed by hand, although a much needed motorised flying system has been installed. This has been a most welcome improvement to the stage area, and has already allowed a wider variety of bigger shows to be hosted. In the auditorium, the colour scheme has changed from gold, cream and blue/green to gold, cream and red, but is otherwise largely untouched. The seating has not changed much either, although the original maximum capacity of 2187 has been reduced over the years to 1600 to align with modern safety requirements. Much wonderful restoration work has been completed in recent years to restore the auditorium and some other public areas to their full beauty. The outside of the building has altered a little over the years, mainly as advertising boards and signs have changed, but the look is almost original. The lady statue, originally mounted on the top of the Tower, was lost for many years and only found again by chance in 1998 in a Hampshire scrapyard. Renamed “Aurora” in honour of the Centenary, she is now on display in the main foyer, and a glass fibre replica was reinstated on the top of the tower in 2009 as the crowning glory of a £200,000 restoration of the whole tower.
Since the City Council bought the theatre, over £2M has been spent bringing the building up to date and improving the facilities, including over £400,000 raised from the fundraising campaign. Much important repair and restoration has been done, and many improvements have been made to all aspects of the theatre.
Actresses Kate O’Mara, Dillie Keane and Lisa Riley are proud to be patrons of the theatre. J W Boughton's daughter married Julian Bainbridge, who for many years was the manager of the Kings. Their daughter, the actress Hazel Bainbridge, is the mother of actresses Kate O'Mara and Belinda Carroll. Actress Dillie Keane, leading lady of “Fascinating Aida”, is a local Southsea doctor’s daughter and was an usher in her youth at the theatre. Actress Lisa Riley became a patron in 2010. Lisa has become a regular visitor professionally to the Kings with two pantomimes and touring productions of 'The Naked Truth' and was asked to be a patron in recognition of her constant support for the Kings and Portsmouth.
In summary, we can quote the words of Dame Sybil Thorndike who always loved to act in the Kings Theatre because of "the wonderful appreciation of the warm-hearted audience at Portsmouth." Please continue to support the Kings and help to keep this wonderful theatre thriving.