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Theatres in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

The Festival Theatre - More Cambridge Theatres Coming Soon

The Festival Theatre, Newmarket Road, Cambridge

Formerly - Theatre Barnwell / Theatre Royal / Barnwell Theatre - Today The Cambridge Buddhist Centre

A Google StreetView Image of the former Festival Theatre, Cambridge - Click to Interact

Above - A Google StreetView Image of the former Festival Theatre, Cambridge - Click to Interact

A Programme for the Cambridge Repertory Players' production of 'To Have The Honour' at the Festival Theatre, Cambridge in 1934.The Festival Theatre is situated in Newmarket Road, Cambridge, and was originally designed by William Wilkins the Younger, and built and opened in 1814. William Wilkins the Younger was also the architect of Downing College and the National Gallery in London. His father, William Wilkins the Elder, built the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, and is known to have built a Theatre in Cambridge in 1808, known as the Barnwell Theatre, which replaced a previous Theatre known as the Stourbridge Fair Theatre, built on the opposite side of Newmarket Road, next to the Sun Inn.

Right - A Programme for the Cambridge Repertory Players' production of 'To Have The Honour' at the Festival Theatre, Cambridge in 1934.

Thus the Festival Theatre is very important, being one of the few early Georgian Playhouses still in existence, and is almost intact. Built for 'The Norwich Players,' a touring theatre company, who's touring Theatres formed what was known as the Norwich circuit, built originally outside the town walls owing to the University's strict opposition to Theatres in the city.

The Theatre is an oblong brick built building, accessible originally down a narrow alley where the 1926 foyer now stands, beside a house of William Wilkins the Elder. The auditorium is horse shoe shaped and on three levels, consisting of boxes with slender iron pillars which continue up to the ceiling, surmounted by a gallery which does not have any pillars present in the centre, thus retaining an uninterrupted view of the stage. The rear walls of the boxes are still in situ, as are the original box doors. It is thought that there are roof beams used in its construction which may have been salvaged from the earlier 1808 building over the road.

The Theatre continued in existence until 1878 when it was put up for auction, being bought by Mr Robert Sayle of the Evangelisation Society when it became a Mission.

In 1914 the Theatre became a boys' club for Kings College. The Theatre was then disused until 1926.

A Programme for the Cambridge Repertory Players' production of 'To Have The Honour' at the Festival Theatre, Cambridge in 1934.

Above - A Programme for the Cambridge Repertory Players' production of 'To Have The Honour' at the Festival Theatre, Cambridge in 1934.

In 1926 the Theatre was purchased by Terence Gray, a millionaire racehorse owner and vineyard proprietor, who then named the theatre 'The Festival Theatre'. He was an admirer of Gordon Craig and made radical alterations to the stage area. Together with Harold Ridge and Norman Marshall, they followed ideas by Gordon Craig to create an open stage. This was achieved by the total removal of the 24 foot wide Georgian Proscenium together with the Georgian apron stage and doors, and they fitted instead an open stage, created in its place, complete with a hand operated wooded revolving stage, and a forty foot high cyclorama. The front of the new stage was stepped down to meet the auditorium floor. The ends of the balcony, which originally came right up to the Proscenium arch, were then turned inwards to terminate at the auditorium walls. There has never been an orchestra pit. Above the stage a large lighting bridge was installed with a frontal 24 feet wide pediment placed where the original Georgian proscenium opening had been, decorated with the Royal coat of arms of Queen Victoria, with the trophies of war and peace painted on it.

The Theatre was then in use from 1926 until 1939, in this format. Famous associates were W. B. Yeats and Ninette de Valois. The open stage experiment only lasted for 7 years however, and the Theatre was then run by a commercial management until 1939.

During World War Two, evacuated Dunkirk soldiers arrived in Cambridge and Jean Holmes formed 'The Cam Merrymakers' working with two army units putting on shows for the troops. These were first presented at Newmarket Racecourse but eventually the Local Council offered the Festival Theatre for their presentation, and they then performed there throughout the war.

In 1946 after the war, the Theatre was used as a store for electrical goods, but was then acquired by The Cambridge Arts Theatre Trust for their wardrobe and workshop use. There were a few theatrical performances of Restoration drama, but the last production was 'The Seagull' by Anton Chekhov in October 1997.

Research examination of the box fronts has revealed that they were originally painted to imitate panels of red fabric, they also show Gray's geometric design decoration and religious texts written from the Theatre's Mission days.

Not only is the Festival Theatre important as an original Georgian Playhouse, but doubly important as a unique example of open stage development.

In 1996 there was a chance that the Theatre might return to theatrical use, for experimental research and development, for Cambridge Arts Theatre. Urgent repairs were made to the roof, but there were financial problems and the project had to be abandoned. The Theatre was then sold in March 1998 to a Buddhist organisation (The Windhorse Trust) for religious and community use, such as Buddhist Festivals, lectures, concerts and theatrical presentations. The Buddhists have been good careful custodians of this rare building, having an ongoing restoration policy.

The present day estimated seating capacity for theatrical use would be for 450 people. The Theatre is Grade II Listed (26th April 1950 and amended 2nd November 1972). However, due to its rarity it warrants Grade I Listing.

You may like to visit the Cambridge Buddhist Centre's own Website, where they also have a history of the building and an image of the Festival Theatre auditorium here. There is also more information and images of the former Theatre at the Theatres Trust Website here.

The above article on the Festival Theatre, Cambridge was written for this site by David Garratt in May 2017 and is © David Garratt 2017.

If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.