The Cambridge Festival Theatre in Newmarket Road, Cambridge is one of only four pre-Victorian theatres surviving in the UK. It was one of a circuit of six theatres in East Anglia built by the touring theatre company the Norwich Players in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The Barnwell Theatre (as it was called at the time) was designed in 1814 by William Wilkins, who built Downing College Cambridge and the National Gallery in London, or perhaps by his father (also called William). It was open for a short seasons each year, but hit financial problems by 1830.
The theatre was auctioned in 1878 and became first a mission for the Evangelisation Society and then, from around 1915, was used as a boys’ club by King’s College. In 1926 it was restored as a theatre by millionaire racehorse owner Terrence Gray. He tore out some of the original fittings to suit it to his radical ideas about theatre, and staged avant garde productions there for seven years attempting to create ‘the most advanced theatre in the British Isles’. W B Yeats and Ninette de Valois are amongst those who appeared there. It passed to a commercial management company, and stopped being used as a theatre in 1939.
During the Second World War, the theatre was used to entertain troops, but after the War became a store for electrical goods. It was acquired by the Cambridge Arts Theatre Trust in 1946 and used as a wardrobe and store room, and for occasional dramatic productions. The most notable of these was the first production of John Shirley’s The Lady of Pleasure in 350 years, performed in 1995 after the theatre was renovated. It was sold in 1998 to the Windhorse Trust to become the Cambridge Buddhist Centre. It is now used for Buddhist festivals, gatherings, concerts and performances. It is a Grade II* listed building.
The theatre is of outstanding interest as one of a tiny number of surviving pre-Victorian theatres. The changes made to it by Gray in the 1920s, while destroying some of the original fittings and structure, are themselves of considerable historical value as they heralded a new age of avant garde performance space. Restoration of the theatre must consider both the original design and Gray’s alterations.
A conservation plan for the theatre was created in 1997 by John Earl following an expert seminar on the conservation of the building in 1996. The plan stresses that minimal intervention is an ideal approach, but that work on the Theatre should allow it to be used either as it was in the Georgian era or under Gray’s directorship.