How Kings Theatre, Portsmouth is reviving a century old play to explore a theatre in wartime

Lads of the Village Portsmouth A scene from Lads of the Village
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Built several years before the outbreak of the First World War, Portsmouth’s Kings Theatre is delving into its past and reviving a play produced a century ago. Al Senter investigates how the venue served its community – and continues to do so

An event as momentous as the First World War has been suitably marked by pomp and circumstance in recent years. One of the more unusual initiatives has been carried out by the grade II-listed Kings Theatre in Portsmouth, which has its own anniversary to celebrate: it opened its doors in September, 1907. In the 110 years of its existence, the Frank Matcham-designed building has faced searching questions about its fate.

“We were nearly turned into a Wetherspoon’s in 2001,” says Katrina Henderson, the theatre’s learning and community engagement officer. Happily, the Kings was spared this ignominy and its future is looking reassuringly stable, as mainly a receiving house on the touring circuit.

There’s no doubt that the theatre’s current activities have been instrumental in building the theatre’s profile within the local community. Opened at the height of the Edwardian era, the Kings was a key witness to the great conflict that broke out seven years later. The theatre has played a pivotal role in the various activities that have been pursued in recent weeks, shedding new light on the Kings as a key element in theatrical and social history.

Kings Theatre soon after completion
Kings Theatre soon after completion

“When I came to work at the Kings, I was talking to the archivists about the available material and I thought, ‘This is amazing’,” explains Henderson. “The schools from the area were still coming to take tours of the theatres so it struck me that we should tap into this area of interest. My previous job had been at Portsmouth’s historic dockyard and I’d become very interested in my work there in the story of the troops but also about the people on the Home Front.”

A grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund of nearly £15,000 has helped finance a project to retrieve a number of the plays that were runaway hits during the First World War period. Through these pieces we can glimpse something of contemporary attitudes and beliefs.

Our image of the Great War has largely been assembled in the past century through the work of the First World War poets and mediated by a generation of historians writing years after the events they describe. Popular culture, by contrast, has not been used to the same extent. So Henderson was encouraged not merely to read the popular plays of the time, but to put on a production of the best and most typical of those the team unearthed.

Would the plays work as well before a modern audience as they had with their forbears? The choice fell on Lads of the Village, a cheerful farce written by Clifford Harris, involving plucky British heroes outsmarting the enemy, an amalgam of the traditional Hunnish cliches without the merest soupcon of political correctness. In publicity material, the play is accurately described as “a cross between ’Allo! ’Allo! and Blackadder”. It’s hard to see Harris giving Ibsen or Shaw any worries about the competition, but Lads of the Village has been turned into a community play.

Given what we now know about conditions in the trenches, it is hard not to feel uncomfortable about the simple-minded patriotism and the gung-ho attitudes on display. Theatres such as the Kings Portsmouth played a crucial part in lending its stage to the expression of propagandist messages, often mediated by leading theatrical figures of the day. There is a report, for example, of a visit paid by Lillie Langtry – the Jersey Lily and royal mistress – to a local hospital where many of the casualties were receiving treatment. Her morale-boosting speech to the men helped, no doubt, to stiffen the sinews of the patients.

Given its location on the south coast, Portsmouth was not only a conduit to northern France and the trenches but it had the size and the facilities to treat the casualties. In addition, it is calculated that 25% of the male population of the city were service personnel.

There is an ongoing debate in the records about the Kings’ artistic policy that has echoes for our own era. Those charged with bringing culture to Pompey were concerned that the Kings might be tempted to duplicate the type of entertainment at other theatres in the area. To judge by contemporary sources, the highbrow drama of the playhouse soon gave way to populism and the speciality acts of the music hall such as writing dogs and performing lions, not to mention a lady high diver from Sweden.

As far as we know, the project has not uncovered any lost dramatic masterpieces, but its findings offer fascinating examples of how the theatre attempted to serve its community. As part of this initiative, schools have been chosen to partner Millstream, a professional company that works with school students to make short films and radio programmes and the HLF gave nearly £10,000 to support this project.

All these various activities will come together as part of the celebrations of the theatre’s 110th anniversary in the autumn. There has been an enthusiastic response to the appeal for volunteers to research local history and in particular the role of the Kings Theatre during the period under scrutiny.

Working on the Theatre of War project
Working on the Theatre of War project

A fascinating episode has emerged from the theatre’s archive concerning the accusation of disloyalty made by one member of the theatre staff against an Anglo-German musician employed by the Kings. The case was not brought to trial but it was suggested by the magistrate to the man concerned that he left town as soon as possible.

Like every other theatre in the country, the Kings was enjoined to take part in a nationwide distribution of a message from Lloyd George, the prime minister, to mark the fourth anniversary of the war in August, 1918. The Kings was apparently glad to do its bit. The theatre will also play host to a permanent exhibition of material collected through the research process and there are plans to send out a touring show that will reach the wider community.

With the Kings a focal point for all this activity and high-profile supporters such as Dillie Keane – sometime of this parish – and local boy Hugh Dennis lending their names, the theatre’s future seems assured. Perhaps we could even hope for another Swedish high diver some day.

The Lost Plays of WWI is at the Kings Theatre, Portsmouth on July 12

First World War project