We are England’s oldest University playhouse, today administered and maintained by the University of Cambridge
ADC Theatre
ADC Theatre (Photo: Johannes Hjorth)

The ADC Theatre is Britain's oldest University playhouse. Plays have been presented on the site since 1855, when the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club (CUADC) was founded, and the society met and performed in the back room of the Hoop Inn.

The coaching inn stood almost exactly where the ADC Theatre stands today, suffering harder times when the advent of rail travel badly affected business. By the beginning of the 1850s, most of the inn was owned by William Ekin, a brewer and wine merchant. In 1855 Ekin let the CUADC two upstairs rooms, which were accessible from Park Street, or through the back entrance on Jesus Lane.

If you can shed more light on any element of the Theatre's past, or would like to contribute to the Theatre's ongoing archive project, please get in touch at manager@adctheatre.com.

Founding of the ADC

The very first minute book of the Club, now housed in the University Library, begins with a jubilant and victorious declaration to the effect that, against all odds and in the face of stern opposition from the Dons ('unfavourable to the ADC as to all other harmless enjoyments'), one FC Burnand and his friends set up the Club. Indeed the author gets so carried away that he launches into a long series of excruciating rhyming couplets:

And first unaided and alone, one morn he went to see
Guest of Caius, Vice-Chancellor of the Universitee
Who after one short talk and three long days delay
In an epistle to Burnand the Vice he thus did say
"VC presents his compliments" and he signed his name then to it
"To FCB of Trinitee: but he won't by no means do it.
"He won't have no performance - so your plays you'd better stop;
"Let down you curtain on your fun and just let this act drop."

What the first committee lacked in poetic skill they certainly made up for in boldness and enthusiasm. Early meetings (and performances) were held in secret, with look-outs placed to give warning of the approach of the University proctors. The Club was officially founded during the Easter Vacation of 1855. The first presentation soon followed, consisting of a number of short one-act plays of varying quality. 'The receipts were scanty,' report the minutes, 'but a start was effected.'

The rooms at first were cramped and bare and lacking any proper facilities. On March 6th 1860, after the princely sum of £5 had been levied from each of the Club's members, the new stage of the Hoop Hotel - built in two more upstairs rooms leased from Ekin - was opened. These rooms were on almost the exact site of the current auditorium and stage. The immortal poet, who had clearly failed to learn his lesson from his last attempt, struck up again:

Compare this spacious area with the floor
Where you once jostled, laughed, perspired and swore;
Fitter for some old unwashed Cynics tub
Than for the home of our dramatic club

In his final valediction he waxes still more lyrical while alluding to one aspect of Cambridge life which has changed little in the intervening years (the gravy, not the waiters):

Ye sons of Trinitee lay by your grief,
The clotted gravy and the bleeding beef,
The greasy female waiters, hideous vision,
And the precarious fate of our petition.
Enjoy the passing moment as it flies;
We'll do our best to feast your ears and eyes.
Forgive our faults and recognise with glee
In a new dress, your old friend ADC.

There were at first great fears from the University Proctors, but thorough inspections having been made of the building, their grudging approval was given. In 1861, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) joined the CUADC. This royal legitimisation did not stop the University authorities from laying down the law in 1871, when they limited performances to the October term, and productions to runs of three nights only. These rules were accepted by the CUADC Committee, but were gradually relaxed over the years, until performances in May Week commenced in 1882, and productions in the Lent Terms re-started in 1888.

1930s - 1970s

Performances were staged almost continuously from the reopening in 1935 through to today.

During World War II, lights were displayed by the side of stage which indicated 'all clear' (green) or 'alert' (red), and directions to the nearest Air Raid Shelter (the Cambridge Union, next door) were printed in the programmes given out to audience members.

It was not until 1935 that women were allowed to act on the ADC Theatre stage. Until then, women's parts had been played by men. Notable players of these parts included Justin Brooke (founder member of the Marlowe Society in 1907) and Arthur Marshall. Since 1935, many female members of the CUADC have gone on to make great contributions to the worlds of theatre and film, notably Miriam Margoyles, Eleanor Bron, Tilda Swinton, Emma Thompson, Sandi Toksvig and Rachel Weisz.

From the end of the war through to the early 1970s, the ADC Theatre enjoyed both the best of times and suffered the worst of times. The 1950s and early 1960s were an exciting time to be up at Cambridge. Sir David Frost has commented, when he was up at Cambridge 'the ADC Theatre was a hive of creativity'. There were almost as many London critics and London agents at an ADC first night as there were at a West End first night!

It is easy to forget that the ADC often struggled financially from year to year during this period. The Club had to bear the costs of increasing maintenance to the building, as well as to fund several shows a year. Some shows were great successes, but others flopped. Of course these struggles provided invaluable experience to the students running the theatre at the time, as Sir Trevor Nunn has commented: 'we learned the hard way about planning, budgets, cost control, box office, marketing, and the price of failure. For me and my contemporaries, working at the ADC Theatre amounted to an exhilarating contradiction, the most audacious and yet the most responsible time of our lives'.

Throughout the 19th century, the Club had stuck to light entertainment. It was only from the 1920s onwards, led by the wake of the Marlowe Society and its turn towards Elizabethan texts, that it turned its hand to more serious drama. In the 1950s and 1960s many serious texts were tackled, and some controversial performances staged.

In 1963, a stir was caused by an undergraduate performance of Expresso Bongo, which featured a short scene with six semi-nude girls. In the time before the Theatres Act of 1968, the show was subject to censorship by the University, and thus was viewed by a University Proctor before being allowed to go up. The Proctor permitted the performance (perhaps an indication of the increasingly liberal attitudes spreading throughout the University at the time), but was heard to comment 'Frankly, I prefer Shakespeare'.

The impact of the ADC on British Theatre is almost inestimable; four of the six artistic directors of the National Theatre (Sir Peter Hall, Richard Eyre, Sir Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner) are alumni of the theatre, and what became known (perhaps unfairly) as the 'Cambridge Mafia' ruled Stratford from the founding of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961 until the early 1980s.

1860s - 1930s

In 1862, the Amateur Dramatic Club leased the ground floor rooms below the auditorium for a caretaker couple, and the premises of the ADC Theatre, as the site became known, were consolidated for the first time. In 1882, the Club bought the freehold to the property using a mortgage of £3,500. Records indicate that £2,000 was still owed in 1914. The building did not acquire a heating system until January 1927, before which time the sole source of heating was a single open fire in the Clubroom.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Amateur Dramatic Club of Cambridge University was a nationally known and respected institution. It had seen the founding of the Marlowe Society, which used the ADC Theatre as its base from its foundation in 1907, until the Arts Theatre was completed in 1936.

In 1905, on the occasion of the Amateur Dramatic Club's 50th Anniversary, a telegram from Buckingham Palace was received that read 'The King offers his warm congratulations to the members of the ADC on the celebration of the Jubilee of the Club. He has not forgotten that he presided on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of its foundation or the long connection he has had with the Club'.

The Club suspended performances in 1914 until the end of the war with Germany, due to reduced student numbers and other, more pressing, student preoccupations.

In 1933, a terrible fire destroyed much of the Theatre, and the news made national headlines. Support flooded in, including messages of goodwill from the King, and eighteen months later the present building was opened to great ceremony. Again, the major papers carried reports and reviews of the first few productions. The Amateur Dramatic Club was now a veritable part of the University's life.

1970s - present

By the early 1970s the Club's finances had worsened and in 1973 the University took on the leasehold for the building. The University pays a peppercorn rent, and employs full-time staff to run the theatre.

Initially, a single Theatre Manager took on all full-time responsibilities, aided by student participants. As the Theatre's activity and popularity increased, extra staff have gradually been added.

In the 1980s, a volunteer-led programme of improvements was carried out - raked seating was installed, dressing room facilities improved, the front of house area smartened up, the bar facilities extended and the office and administrative area increased.

In the 1990s a new counterweight flying system, for lifting large pieces of scenery above the stage, was installed. The bar was refurbished in 2000, and from 2004-2008 the Theatre underwent a dramatic redevelopment to modernise the facilities and structure of the building. In 2018 the ADC Theatre had a second development in which the roof was replaced and two lighting bridges installed, alongside changes in the auditorium seating.

The ADC Theatre continues to be the centre of student drama in Cambridge, hosting ambitious and professional standard productions. Recent graduates continue to go on to great things; performing in films and on the West End, touring as comedians, and working in all areas of theatre.