The Cambridge Arts Theatre opened in 1936 in Peas Hill, in response to demand from the townspeople and the university who, for some time, had been eager for a full-sized theatre to be built in the town centre. The nearby theatre of Cambridge Amateur Dramatic Club was popular but limited in size. John Maynard Keynes, the renowned economist who studied at King’s College, was one of the main enthusiasts and a chief benefactor, sharing the costs with the town. The opening night was a very special occasion, with Dame Margot Fonteyn, the famous ballerina, dancing on stage.
Since 1936, the Arts Theatre has gone from strength to strength, producing shows throughout the year, including popular plays, seasoned classics, and Christmas pantomimes. And it’s home to the Cambridge Theatre Company, one of the country’s most eminent touring companies.
Also well-known is the student comedy review group, the ‘Cambridge Footlights’, which has produced a range of young actors and actresses who have gone on to become famous throughout the world both on stage and screen. John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle of ‘Monty Python’ fame were once members of the ‘Footlights’. Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie – known for his character Dr. House – all started their careers here, as did David Mitchell, Rowan Atkinson (known for his character Mr Bean) and Sacha Baron Cohen (creator of the character Borat). Prominent members also include Academy Award winner Lord Julian Fellowes, who is also the writer and producer of the popular TV show “Downton Abbey”; and the Emmy-award-winning talk show host John Oliver.
The new entrance to the theatre and box office are now in St Edward’s Passage Way, but you can still see the old entrance to the theatre between the shops and cafes of Peas Hill – look out for the words ‘Cambridge Arts Theatre’ clearly marked. Going through the old the entrance is a similar experience to entering the tardis police box in ‘Dr Who’: behind a small doorway lies a full-size stage and auditorium.