1936 Auditorium photo


Discover the story behind this historic Cambridge venue

A thriving regional showcase, Cambridge Arts Theatre is an outstanding theatre, a beacon for the development of arts professionals and a much-loved regional and national institution, whose history is rooted in the city of Cambridge. We are the only high-quality presenting theatre within 60 miles serving the population of Cambridgeshire and the surrounding area.

1960's programme

Founded in 1936 by the economist and founder member of the Arts Council, John Maynard Keynes, we have helped launch the careers of theatrical luminaries such as Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry; the last four directors of the National Theatre – Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, Richard Eyre and Nicholas Hytner – all directed on our stage at the start of their careers, and we have played host to a dazzling variety of cultural milestones, from Margot Fonteyn dancing her first Swan Lake to Harold Pinter's premiere of The Birthday Party.

Ian Mckellen

Today we are the venue of choice for all scale-appropriate drama, dance and opera in both the subsidised and commercial sectors, building strong and  mutually beneficial relationships with the cream of the country’s touring producers and bringing productions to the region that diversify and enrich the city’s cultural offering.

From world premieres such as Mike Leigh’s Grief, Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn and Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London to long-running classics such as An Inspector Calls, The Woman in Black and The 39 Steps, we have built excellent relationships with the UK's leading touring companies. Established companies such as The National Theatre, Cheek by Jowl and Shakespeare’s Globe, alongside those producing bold, innovative and invigorating new work  such as Kneehigh, Lyric Hammersmith and Ireland’s Abbey Theatre, help put the Arts Theatre and Cambridge firmly on the cultural map as the prime destination for touring theatre.

In summer 2013 the Theatre’s supporters invested £1.5m in the redevelopment of the Front of House spaces and significant building work transformed our existing foyer areas and provided improved bar facilities. The Theatre can only survive if we earn money from selling drinks, programmes and ice creams. Every penny we make goes to support the work of the Theatre.

Cambridge Arts Theatre: A Timeline

  • Early Years


    John Maynard Keynes (First Bursar to King’s College and author of ‘The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’) devises a plan to build a centrally-situated modern theatre in Cambridge. Keynes’s scheme is developed in cooperation with Dr. George ‘Dadie’ Rylands, a young Fellow at King’s.

    Keynes’ enthusiasm to build a theatre in Cambridge, the city of his birth, stems from various influences: his friendship with Duncan Grant and others from the Bloomsbury Set; his lifelong love of poetry and his fine ear for language; and his devotion to his wife, Lydia Lopokova, who had been a ballerina with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, who once remarked that he was always ‘more than an economist’.

    King’s College agrees to grant Keynes a 99-year building lease.

    George Kennedy is appointed as architect and A name for the Theatre is found: Cambridge Arts Theatre. The original suggestion was The Fishmarket Theatre, after the fishmongers of Cambridge, whose water pump still stands on the site at Peas Hill.

    3 Feb 1936

    Gala opening of Cambridge Arts Theatre. Programme includes: The National Anthem; Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet) – Frederick Ashton’s ‘Façade’ with Margot Fonteyn; Gavin Gorden’s ‘The Rake’s Progress’ with Robert Helpmann.

  • 1930's

    Spring 1936
    First production of The Greek Play, in which members of the University’s classics department combine once every three years to produce an Ancient Greek tragedy or comedy in the original language. In 1936 it was Frogs by Aristophanes – including a jazz melody, ‘the playing of which evoked the loudest roar of laughter and applause’.

    May 1936
    First visit of the Footlights Revue. Founded in 1883, this University club specialises in drawing original comic talent out of undergraduates, with a summer show. Presented by the Arts from 1936-1940 and from 1948-1992.

    Notable Footlights members through the decades include: Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Eleanor Bron, David Frost, Miriam Margolyes, Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Clive James, Emma Thompson, Tony Slattery, Griff Rhys Jones.

    July 1936
    First production at the Arts by the Marlowe Society, founded in 1907 to produce Shakespeare in Cambridge. ‘Hamlet’, directed by Dadie Rylands, who also plays Claudius, with Humphrey Whitbread as Hamlet.

    Notable members of the Marlowe Society through the ages include Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Derek Jacobi, Margaret Drabble, Corin Redgrave, Tilda Swinton, Sam Mendes and many more.

    Keynes presents his Theatre in trust to the City and the University. First Trustees are: Dadie Rylands, the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor, the Professors of English Literature and Music, and the Provost of King’s College.

  • 1940's - 1980's

    The closure of most West End theatres and the large numbers of Army and Air Force personnel stationed close to Cambridge means that the house at the Arts is almost always full. “Alas that it should take a world war to save a small provincial theatre.’, says Dadie Rylands in 1954.

    Keynes is elevated to the peerage and takes his seat in the House of Lords, on the Liberal benches. He becomes chairman of the newly formed Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, renamed the British Arts Council before the war.

    Keynes attends the Bretton Woods Conference in July, helping influence the US towards the formulation of the Marshall Aid Plan, crucial to the economic recovery of Europe after World War II.

    Lord Keynes dies. Dadie Rylands becomes Chairman of the Arts Theatre Trust, with Lydia Lopokova a Trustee. The Theatre begins to stage productions by local amateur groups.

    Inauguration of the summer festival, which in 1948 features Benjamin Britten conducting the English Opera Group’s production of his comic opera ‘Albert Herring’.

    The Cambridge Theatre Company is established, supported by the Arts Theatre, Cambridge City Council and the Arts Council. First production is Jonson’s ’The Alchemist’ with James Bolam. It soon becomes one of the most valued repertory companies in the country.

    Maureen Lipman, Prunella Scales, Zoe Wanamaker, Sheila Hancock, Ian Charleson and Tom Conti played seasons with the company.

    Dadie Rylands retires as Chairman of the Arts Theatre Trust on his 80th birthday and is succeeded by Dr. Christopher Johnson, then Senior Bursar of St. John’s College.

    Feb 1986
    50th Anniversary Year. A Gala recital is held as part of fund-raising campaign to refurbish the building. Compered by Richard Baker, music provided by Martin Best and Mary Verney, with services given by luminaries of the world of theatre: Peggy Ashcroft, Eleanor Bron, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Peter Hall, Ian McKellen, Trevor Nunn, Prunella Scales and Timothy West among them. Show directed by Dadie Rylands, aged 83, the last show he would ever direct.

    July 1988
    Barry Brown (ex President of Footlights) appointed as architect of the refurbishment by the Trust.

  • 1990's

    Jan 1993
    Fundraising campaign for the redevelopment project is launched. Plans include refitting the auditorium, improving backstage facilities, and reconstructing front of house, restaurant, offices and plant rooms, as well as a higher fly-tower and an additional entrance to the building in St. Edward’s Passage.

    Dec 1996
    Cambridge Arts Theatre re-opens.

  • 2000's - present day

    Ian Ross appointed Director.

    Dave Murphy appointed as Chief Executive.

    Cambridge Arts Theatre wins the ‘Way To Be’ Award for excellence in providing access for disabled customers, and the Theatre Management Award for the ‘Most Welcoming Theatre’.

    Trevor Nunn returns to the Arts Theatre to direct Cymbeline for the Marlowe Society’s centenary. He revisited the production after acting in it for the Marlowe in 1960, alongside fellow students Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Margaret Drabble.

    The Theatre enters its 75th anniversary year. Sir Ian McKellen returns to the Arts stage after an absence of many years to perform in The Syndicate.

    Extensive remodeling of the Theatre’s front of house and bar spaces is undertaken and a new box office and main entrance into the building is created on St Edward’s Passage.

    The Theatre returns to in-house producing after many years with a production of 84 Charing Cross Road, starring Stefanie Powers and Clive Francis.

    The Theatre receives a £100,000 grant to preserve it's heritage, read more here.

Bibliography: ‘Cambridge Arts Theatre. Celebrating Sixty Years’ edited by Rupert Christiansen; Granta Editions, 1996