Heritage Volunteers from the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (TRBSE) made a trip to Cambridge this week to visit an even older theatre that used to be on the same circuit as TRBSE in the Georgian era.

The former Barnwell Theatre dates back to 1814, and was built by William Wilkins Snr, father of the William Wilkins who designed and built TRBSE. No longer a theatre, it is currently used as a Buddhist Centre. Look out for a white painted façade in Newmarket Road, Cambridge.

The visit was an absolute revelation: I knew the theatre existed but had never seen it. We entered the building through the art deco style foyer which had been added in the 1920s. Having been warned by our charming guide that access to the upper stories of the theatre was at our own risk, we were taken through to explore the remnants of this intimate playhouse.

 

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Like TRBSE, the theatre has two tiers of boxes; the box partitions and seating are long gone, though. perhaps the biggest surprise was the fact that the gallery had a tiered floor, like the seating in a Greek or Roman amphitheatre.

Although I think it is smaller than TRBSE, the Barnwell Theatre apparently held as many as 900 people in its heyday, an astonishing number. In 1926, the theatre was reopened under the management of Terence Gray as the Festival Theatre.

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Gray made many structural alterations to the Georgian fabric to reflect avant garde ideas of the day. The brick-built cyclorama is one of his innovations and, under the stage, we were able to see the wooden structure of a revolving stage he installed. If the Buddhists ever moved out of the building, any attempt to restore it as a theatre would have to balance the competing demands of preserving the history of those two eras.

 

Occasional performances still take place there in the ground floor section. As recently as last year, the Centre hosted a play commemorating the theatre’s eventful history. What a night that must have been!

 

Gayle Wade, Heritage Volunteer

This article was originally published in the Bury Mercury, Wednesday 28th September.