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Theatres in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

The Festival Theatre - The Theatre Royal

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.

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.

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

Left - 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.

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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