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Portsmouth Theatre threatened with closure after NatWest's 'utter incompetence'

  • @MrNickClark

When a Portsmouth theatre had its bank accounts accidentally shut down by NatWest in January, the management wrote it off to bad luck and looked forward to getting back to business without too much fuss. 

Yet two months on, the issues are still not fully resolved and the business interruption means the Groundlings Theatre is “on the brink” of closure, with problems with its suppliers and ticket sales plunging 90 per cent.

Artistic director Richard Stride revealed the theatre is to hold a fundraising event on Sunday as he seeks to cover the estimated £10,000 in lost revenues over the past two months, while he has unsuccessfully sought a loan as well as arts grants.

The financial state has become so parlous that the theatre currently cannot even afford to call out a plumber to mend a broken toilet, and there are fears that the gas may soon be cut off.

Mr Stride said: “We haven’t been able do the things we would normally do to keep the theatre running. Things began to spiral out of control and we’re now at the point where we’re threatened with closure.”

The problems at the 180-seat venue started on 13 January when Mr Stride was unable to access its accounts over the Internet. After days of fruitless attempts, NatWest informed the management that all four accounts had been closed and it was unable to withdraw money or pay its bills.

“The bank had made a huge error; they closed the accounts and couldn’t tell us how much money was in there. They’ve never explained how or why it occurred,” Mr Stride said.

“Initially we weren’t that annoyed as everyone makes mistakes. We didn’t realise the implications and what it would cost us.”

NatWest pledged to have the accounts fully up and running in three weeks but Mr Stride complained about the poor service he received and 10 weeks on “this is still continuing. The issue hasn’t been fully resolved whatever they say.”

The bank apologised for the error to Mr Stride, which is his stage name. The artistic director’s real name is Richard Hurdle.

A spokeswoman for NatWest said: “Mr Hurdle had access to funds throughout the temporary closure of his account, and we were in contact with him during this period. The account has since been reinstated.”

Mr Stride claims the bank initially offered to cover any losses but has instead only covered his daily phone calls to the branch and offered £500 in compensation, after initially offering £50.

The theatre, which has been running for four years, stages everything from Shakespeare and musicals to pantomime. Last year attendances had risen more than 50 per cent over 2012.

Yet this year has proved a nightmare. Management now has access to three of the four accounts, but the impact of the interruption of the past months has been devastating for the business.

The Groundlings has been unable to print marketing materials or brochures. Key services have also been withdrawn as a side effect of the closure of its accounts, with the cancellation of all its standing orders and direct debits.

Mr Stride said while many businesses he works with had reacted well, his theatre had also lost a lot of goodwill among companies for an issue that was not its own fault.

Ticket sales subsequently collapsed, with the theatre forced to cancel a series of shows, including recent children show Storybox. This weekend, The Pillow Maker will go ahead with fewer than 10 tickets sold.

“About 50 per cent of my time is dealing with the bank. I can’t do my normal job,” the artistic director said. “This process has taken an enormous amount of time and money.”