Cambridge Buddhist Centre

History of the Barnwell or Festival Theatre

The Festival Theatre in the 1920sThe Festival Theatre in the 1920s

The Cambridge Buddhist Centre building is formed partly of a renovated Georgian house and partly of the ‘Barnwell’ or ‘Fesitval’ theatre and foyer, a grade II listed building.

The ‘Barnwell’ or ‘Festival’ Theatre

The theatre, which forms part of the Buddhist Centre, dates from 1814 and is one of only a handful of pre-Victorian theatres outside London. It has two tiered galleries and a large curved screen or ‘cyclorama’. In March 1998, the Theatre and its adjoining house were purchased by the Windhorse Trust to be the new Cambridge Buddhist Centre and is used regularly for Buddhist festivals and large gatherings, for concerts and performances.

There is an ongoing programme of renovation. If you would like to help, please contact us.

History of the theatre

The two tiered galleries stand as they were originally designed in 1814, though the private boxes have been removed. The cut-off stage reveals neither the Georgian forestage nor the stepped front that Terence Gray introduced when he took over the Theatre in 1926. The cyclorama he built remains, and is the focus of this installation. The substage space contains no trace of the Georgian theatrical machinery, but Gray's hand-operated wooden revolve is still there. The box fronts have been covered over, but underneath are the remains of the nineteenth century design imitating panels of red fabric, some of the boldly lettered mission hall texts, and Gray's geometrical motif - remnants of the major phases in the history of the Theatre.

The theatre was among several built for a touring company, the Norwich players, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Norwich Circuit, as it was known, was taken over in 1800 by William Wilkins, whose first Cambridge theatre opened in September 1808, made of wood and probably situated where the Elizabeth Way roundabout now lies. Wilkins' son (also named William) designed Downing College in 1806 and the National Gallery in London. It is unclear which of the Wilkins designed our Theatre in 1814. Although the Barnwell Theatre, as it was then known, was initially very successful, the Norwich circuit did not last long, and by the 1830s Wilkins was struggling financially. The Theatre was auctioned in 1878 and bought by Mr Robert Sayle, who turned it into a mission hall for the Evangelisation Society.

The design elements that made the building a good theatre also made it effective for proselytising and revivalism. The front of the stage was well placed in the heart of the audience, so the speaker was not too far from anyone, and the building's curved shape brought the furthest wings of the audience opposite each other, allowing eye contact and a good sense of community. And so the Theatre for the first time was home to a thriving spiritual community.

The Theatre remained in use as a mission hall for many years and was then used as a boy's club by King's College. In 1926 it was bought by Terence Gray, who gave it a second lease of life as a theatre (see picture above, taken in this era).

Gray was a millionaire racehorse owner and vineyard proprietor who gave the Gog Magogs to the Cambridge Preservation Trust. He gave the Theatre the name by which it is probably best known, the Festival Theatre. An admirer of Edward Gordon Craig, he wanted to turn Craig's ideas on staging and design into a reality. This meant eschewing realism and instead using abstract forms and lighting effects on a stage that could be approached by the performers from any direction, without the constraint of a proscenium arch. So Gray removed the proscenium walls and doors and returned the already curved ends of the tiers to meet the side walls. He inserted a hand-operated wooden revolve in a new stage whose front was stepped down into the auditorium.

The proscenium pediment, fixed to the auditorium face of a new lighting bridge, was painted with the Royal arms of Queen Victoria, and with trophies of war and peace. A permanent cyclorama was built at the rear of the stage; forty feet high, its flat surface, flooded evenly with light, almost defied detection and gave an amazing effect of distance.

The Theatre attracted some famous names, including WB Yeats and Ninette de Valois. This success was, however, short lived. The Festival Theatre operated only seven years under the direct influence of Gray and his colleagues, and was then run by a commercial management company, gradually declining until it closed in 1939.

The Theatre enjoyed a brief re-awakening during World War II. Evacuated soldiers from Dunkirk arrived in Cambridge in their thousands. Entertainer Jean Holmes formed the 'The Cam Merrymakers', who worked with two Army units to provide shows for the troops. At first these took place in the open air at Newmarket racecourse, but the local council subsequently allowed her to use the Festival Theatre, and the Merrymakers performed here throughout the war.

After the war, the Theatre became a store for electrical goods. It was then acquired by the Cambridge Arts Theatre Trust and served for many years as a wardrobe and workshop, mostly unseen by the public. It survived almost untouched while massive redevelopment went on around it to form the Grafton Centre. A few theatrical performances took place, the last being a production of Chekhov's The Seagull in Oct 1997.

In March 1998, the Theatre and its adjoining house were purchased by the Windhorse Trust to be the new Cambridge Buddhist Centre. The Theatre itself is once again in regular use, for Buddhist festivals and large gatherings, for concerts and performances, and for occasional special events like 'Restoration Drama'. There is an ongoing programme of renovation; most recently the cyclorama was re-painted and the Theatre ceiling patched and painted with generous financial help from Commissions East.

You can also view more details and photographs on the Theatres Trust website

If you would like to contribute towards the cost of further renovation work, please contact us.