1936 Auditorium photo


Discover the story behind this historic Cambridge venue

For over eighty years, Cambridge Arts Theatre has been bringing world class performing arts to our city and region. Explore our history below...

  • Early Years


    John Maynard Keynes, the celebrated economist and founding member of the Arts Council, devised a plan to build a centrally situated modern theatre in Cambridge. Keynes's scheme is developed in cooperation with George 'Dadie' Rylands, a young Fellow at King's College, Cambridge. 

    Keynes's enthusiasm to build a theatre in Cambridge, the city of his birth, stemmed from various influences: his friendship with the artist Duncan Grant and others from the infamous Bloomsbury Group; his lifelong love of poetry and his fine ear for language; and his devotion to his wife, the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova.

    That year, King's College agreed to grant a 99-year building lease for a site on Peas Hill and St Edward's Passage.

    George Kennedy was appointed as architect and a name for the Theatre was found: Cambridge Arts Theatre. Other suggestions had included The Fishmarket Theatre, named after the fishmongers of Cambridge whose water pump still stands on the site at Peas Hill. 


    On 3 February, Cambridge Arts Theatre opened with a gala performance by the Sadler's Wells Ballet featuring Frederick Ashton, Margot Fonteyn, and Robert Helpmann. Among the first of those to make donations to the new Theatre were Agatha Christie and E. M. Forster, the latter presenting the royalties from a successful stage adaptation of A Passage to India. 


    Keynes presented his Theatre in trust to the City and the University. Its first trustees were Dadie Rylands, the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Cambridge, Professors of English Literature and Music from the University, and the Provost of King’s College.

    1938 also marked the first of what would become a habit of premiering new plays by established and up-and-coming writers. That year, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood's On the Frontier made its debut on the Cambridge Arts Theatre stage. The incidental music for the production was composed by Benjamin Britten. 

  • Second World War


    Just two months after the outbreak of the Second World War, Ballet Jooss were brought to Cambridge Arts Theatre by Keynes, with proceeds from their gala performance going to Jewish refugees from continental Europe. Ballet Jooss, led by their choreographer Kurt Jooss, had fled Germany in 1933 when Jooss refused to dismiss the Jewish members of his company.

    The closure of most West End theatres and the stationing of large numbers of Army and Air Force personnel in and around Cambridge during the war meant that the Arts Theatre was almost always full.

    "Alas that it should take a world war to save a small provincial theatre," wrote Dadie Rylands later in 1954. "Many West End theatres were bombed or closed, in the main the profession had to take to the road, and they were glad and proud to do so... And we could fill the theatre; there were all the camps and air stations grouped around us, American as well as our own; there were civil servants and cadets and London university graduates (evacuees); the hundreds coming on leave; everyone in sore need of relaxation and distraction and some gaiety. So we were FULL."


    Keynes became chairman of the newly formed Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), renamed the Arts Council after the war. 


    Keynes was elevated to the peerage and took his seat on the Liberal benches in the House of Lords.


    Keynes attended the Bretton Woods Conference and there helped influence the United States towards the formulation of the Marshall Aid Plan, crucial to the economic recovery of Europe after the Second World War.


  • Coming of Age


    Lord Keynes died. Dadie Rylands became Chairman of the Arts Theatre Trust, with Lydia Lopokova on the Board of Trustees. The Theatre began to stage productions by local amateur groups, including the Cambridge Operatic Society (CaOS). 

    Dadie Rylands


    The Cambridge Arts Theatre Summer Festival, launched one year earlier, featured Benjamin Britten conducting the English Opera Group’s production of his comic opera Albert Herring.


    Cambridge Arts Theatre hosts the world premiere of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party. 


    Sir Ian McKellan first performed at Cambridge Arts Theatre as an undergraduate in Henry IV. 


    Trevor Nunn, Ian McKellan, Derek Jacobi, and Margaret Drabble appeared in a production of Cymbeline by the Marlowe Society. 

    Trevor Nunn 1962


    Footlights Revue: 'Double Take' starring John Cleese, Miriam Margolyes, and directed by Trevor Nunn. 

    Footlights Double Take 1962


    Footlights Revue: 'My Girl Herbert' starring Germaine Greer and Eric Idle. 

    Eric IdleGermaine Greer






  • 1970s & 80s


    The Cambridge Theatre Company was established, supported by the Arts Theatre, the Cambridge City Council, and the Arts Council. Its inaugral production was Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist and starred James Bolam. The Cambridge Theatre Company soon became one of the most valued repertory companies in the country.

    The Alchemist


    Footlights Revue: 'The Cellar Tapes' starring Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Emma Thompson.

    Stephen Fry


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


    Footlights Revue: 'The Story So Far...' starring Peter Dennis (later Hugh Dennis).

    Footlights 1984Footlights 1984 2









    In the 50th anniversary of its founding, Cambridge Arts Theatre hosted a gala as part of an upcoming fundraising campaign to refurbish the building. Services were given by luminaries of the theatre world including Peggy Ashcroft, Eleanor Bron, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Peter Hall, Ian McKellan, Trevor Nunn, Prunella Scales, and Timothy West. The performance was directed by Dadie Rylands, aged 83, and was the last he would ever direct.



    Barry Brown, a former President of Footlights, was appointed as architect of the refurbishment by the Trust.

  • 1990s


    In January, the 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.

    Auditorium refurb







    Dec 1996

    In December, Cambridge Arts Theatre re-opened.


  • 21st Century


    Ian Ross appointed as Director.


    Dave Murphy appointed as Chief Executive.


    Cambridge Arts Theatre won the ‘Way To Be’ Award for excellence in providing access for customers with additional needs, and the Theatre Management Award for the ‘Most Welcoming Theatre’.


    Trevor Nunn returned to the Arts Theatre to direct Cymbeline for the Marlowe Society’s centenary production, assisted by Robert Icke. 

    Trevor Nunn Cymbeline


    Tracy Chevalier's new play Girl with a Pearl Earring premiered at Cambridge Arts Theatre prior to a transfer to the West End. 


    The Theatre entered its 75th anniversary year. Sir Ian McKellan returned to the Arts stage after an absence of many years to perform in The Syndicate.


    The Theatre's Supporters invested £1.5 million in the development of the Front of House spaces and significant building works which transformed our existing foyer areas and provided improved bar facilities.


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

    Clive FrancisStefanie Powers






    The Olivier award-nominated musical Six premiered at Cambridge Arts Theatre, following its successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe. 


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

    Ellie King Archivist


    In March, in line with government restrictions to control the spread of Coronavirus, Cambridge Arts Theatre closed. 

    In December, Cambridge Arts Theatre was one of only a handful of UK theatres to produce a Pantomime. With a rigorous testing regime and a socially distanced audience, Dame Trott's Panto Palaver played to 5,500 people before closing on Christmas Eve when the Theatre was forced to shut once again. 

    Wear a Max


    In June, Cambridge Arts Theatre reopened with its 'Theatre is Back' campaign. Highlights from the opening season included Michael Frayn's Tony award-winning Copenhagen, a stage adaptation of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets starring Ralph Fiennes, and Patricia Hodge and Nigel Havers in Noël Coward's classic comedy Private Lives. 

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