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Theatres in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

The Cambridge Arts Theatre - The Festival Theatre - The Theatre Royal

The Cambridge Arts Theatre, 6 St Edwards Passage, Cambridge

A Google StreetView Image of Peas Hill and the Cambridge Arts Theatre - Click to Interact.

Above - A Google StreetView Image of Peas Hill and the Cambridge Arts Theatre - Click to Interact. The Main Entrance to the Theatre is in St Edward's Passage hidden behind the Paul Matthew's Truck in this image. A Second Entrance is on Peas Hill itself.

The Cambridge Arts Theatre is situated at 6, St Edward's Passage, which is in the historic centre of Cambridge, close by the Colleges. It was built in 1936 by the economist and founder of the Arts Council, John Maynard Keynes. In 1934 John Keynes (who was first bursar to Kings College) devised a plan to build a centrally situated modern Theatre together with the late George 'Dadie' Rylands. The land was granted on a 99 year building lease by Kings College. John Keynes wife was Lydia Lopokova, a ballerina with Diaghilev's Ballet Russe.

The architect for the Theatre was George Kennedy and the chosen name for its opening was the 'Cambridge Arts Theatre'. (Originally the suggested name was to be 'The Fishmarket Theatre' after the fishmongers of Cambridge who's water pump still stands at Peas Hill).

The Theatre opened on the 3rd of February 1936 with a Gala performance by the Sadler's Wells Ballet Company. After the National Anthem there was a performance of 'Facade' by Frederick Ashton, starring Margot Fonteyn, and then Gavin Gordon's 'The Rakes Progress', starring Robert Helpmann.

The Theatre's auditorium consists of Stalls and one Circle, with a box either side of the proscenium arch, named respectively Rylands Box and Keynes Box. It's current capacity is 671 seats, with decor from the 1930's era. The Theatre is managed by The Cambridge Arts Theatres Trust.

Current Technical details are:-
Stage dimensions:
Proscenium width: 25 feet 7 inches (7,800mm)
Proscenium height: 16 feet 3¾ inches (4,960mm)
Stage depth from upstage down to the safety curtain: - 32 feet 10 inches (10,000mm)
Stage height from auditorium floor: 3 feet 1 inch (950)mm
Height from stage floor to grid: 48 feet 3½ inches (14,690mm)

There are 46 single purchase counterweight flying bars.
There is also a fore stage lift.

A Google StreetView Image of the Main Entrance to the Cambridge Arts Theatre in St Edward's Passage - Click to Interact.The first production in 1936 was the Greek play 'Frogs' by Aristophanes, presented by a combination of the University's Classics department. In July 1936 Dadie Rylands directed 'Hamlet' by the Marlowe Society, and also appeared as Claudius, with Humphrey Whitbread playing Hamlet. The 'Footlights Revue' paid visits in 1936 to 1940 and from 1948 to 1992.

Right - A Google StreetView Image of the Main Entrance to the Cambridge Arts Theatre in St Edward's Passage - Click to Interact.

In 1938 Keynes gave the Theatre in trust to the City and University. The trustees were Dadie Rylands, the Mayor and deputy, the professors of English Literature and Music, and the Provost of Kings College.

1947 saw the commencement of a regular Summer Festival. The 1948 Summer Festival featured Benjamin Britten conducting the English Opera Group's production of 'Albert Herring'.

The Theatre also staged the world premier of Pinter's 'The Birthday Party' on the 28th April 1948.

In 1970 The Cambridge Theatre Company established financial support from the Arts Council and Cambridge City Council, and the first production presented was 'The Alchemist' by Ben Johnson, starring James Bolam. Famous artists who trod the boards with this Repertory Company were, Prunella Scales, Sheila Hancock, Maurine Lipman, Zoe Wannamaker, Tom Conti, and Ian Charleston. The Theatre also helped launch the careers of Ian McKellan, Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry.

The Theatre has also played host to some of the Country's most famous theatre Directors, namely Sir Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, Nicholas Hyntner and Richard Eyre.

In 1984 the 50th Anniversary was celebrated with a special Gala.

In 1993 a fund raising campaign was launched to refit the auditorium, improve the backstage facilities and reconstruct the front of house, the restaurant, offices, and the plant room, and to improve entrances, and raise the height of the Stage Fly tower.

In 2013 supporters raised £1.5 Million for redevelopment of the front of house areas including bar spaces, a new box office, and a new main entrance created on St Edward's passage.

2016 saw the Theatre return to producing it's own 'in house' productions commencing with '84 Charring Cross Road' starring Stephanie Powers and Clive Francis.

The Cambridge Arts Theatre currently presents a mixed bill of productions to cater for all entertainment tastes of Drama, Opera and Dance, together with various visiting touring productions. You may like to visit the Theatre's own Website here.

The above article on the Cambridge Arts Theatre was written for this site by David Garratt in December 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.

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.

The Theatre Royal, St Andrews Street, Cambridge

Formerly - The New Theatre Royal

The Theatre Royal was situated in St Andrews Street in Cambridge. In 1882 the site had been home to the St Andrews skating rink, which had later become disused. In 1883 the skating rink was converted into a Theatre known as 'The New Theatre Royal' in the hoped for imminent 'University derestriction of term time plays being performed'. However, on the 13th August 1895 work began to build a new Theatre on the site, to designs of the eminent Theatre architect, Ernest Runtz. The opening performance took place on Monday January 20th 1896.

The site of the Theatre enabled Runtz to incorporate plenty of entrances and exits, there being four entrances into the auditorium with four emergency exits opening directly into the open. On stage there were two exits opening directly into the open, plus two more exits from the dressing room block.

The Auditorium and Stage of the Theatre Royal, Cambridge - From The American Architect and Building News of July 1895.The central entrance led into the vestibule containing the Box Office and the foundation stone laid by Henry Beerbohm Tree in 1895. Beyond was the crush room, cloakroom and toilets. On the right was an arcaded approach with a six foot wide corridor leading into the stalls, and refreshment salon. The grand staircase led to the foyer, on the left of which was a large alcove, with fernery beyond, intended as a tea and coffee lounge for ladies. Opposite this alcove was the circle salon.

Right - The Auditorium and Stage of the Theatre Royal, Cambridge - From The American Architect and Building News of July 1895.

The decorations throughout were in the Renaissance style. The auditorium was decorated with blue and gold wallpaper. The circle fronts painted in the same colour scheme but being relieved with white and gold.

A Painting of the Auditorium and Stage of the Theatre Royal, Cambridge by George Richmond in October 2017. The Theatre's capacity was quoted at the time as being able to hold 1,400 people. The Pit held 270, and the stalls sat 332. The Grand Circle had a seating capacity of 246 seats. The Amphitheater and Gallery were approached by a separate staircase and provided with emergency exits. The seating capacity was 500. Here too, was a refreshment salon with uninterrupted views of the stage. The stalls and circle seats were tip up, upholstered in golden brown velvet.

Left - A Painting of the Auditorium and Stage of the Theatre Royal, Cambridge by George Richmond in October 2017. George says:- 'The painting is based on the contemporary line drawing of the Theatre on this page, and the colour scheme is also based on information given on this page. As it is unclear from the drawing I have depicted the proscenium dressing as a fire curtain, and I have modified the decoration above the proscenium due to a lack of detail in the original drawing' - Click for an Index to all of George Richmond's Paintings on this site.

The proscenium opening was 27ft 6 inches wide by 26ft 9 inches high, being flanked with six boxes between Corinthian columns, above which was an Entablature, with a frieze 6 feet in depth and 48 feet in length, on which were painted a group of allegorical figures, depicting 'Declamation,' 'Music,' and 'Drama.' On the left of this were representations of Shakespeare's heroes and heroines of comedy, and on the right the hero's and heroines of tragedy. The return ends of the frieze were painted with scenes from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and 'Macbeth.' The ceiling was also in the Renaissance style with the central panel being hand painted, and the whole being illuminated with clusters of electric lights.

The floors were covered in Axminster carpet of rich claret colour, forming an harmonious contrast to the remaining decorations. The pit and amphitheater seats were all upholstered in golden brown leather. The Box draperies were specially designed by Mr Runtz also in the character of French Renaissance, being richly embroidered, and bearing the arms of the University of the town.

The Crush Room of the Theatre Royal, Cambridge - From The American Architect and Building News of July 1895.The full width of the stage was 56 feet and 36 feet deep. The height to the grid was 54ft 3 inches. The fly rail being at 22 feet above the stage, and fitted with a movable bridge, together with paint frame for the scenic artist.

Right - The Crush Room of the Theatre Royal, Cambridge - From The American Architect and Building News of July 1895.

The dressing rooms were situated in a separate block to the rear of the stage, and the whole building was lit by electricity.

Early productions presented were 'San Toy, ' Floradora', 'The Belle of New York', 'The Rose of Persia',(all early musical comedies). 'A Message from Mars,' 'Gentleman Joe,' 'David Garrick,' 'The School for Scandal,' 'The Rivals,' The Womens Revenge' and 'The life we Live,' (all plays.)

The Theatre continued to provide entertainment for the Cambridge public for many years, but was struggling by the mid 1930's, and in 1935, having had a policy of mixing stage production with cinematic presentations, it closed down. The Theatre was re-opened in 1947 as a cinema, but from 1948 reverted back to stage productions.

By the 1950's, like most Theatres in Britain, with the advent of television, it struggled again, even presenting striptease shows, but it finally succumbed to the inevitable and closed permanently in 1956.

Sadly this fine building was finally demolished in 1960/1.

The above article on the Theatre Royal, Cambridge was written for this site by David Garratt in September 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.

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