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.

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 with the Theatre Manager at manager@adctheatre.com.

Founding of the ADC

Our first understanding of University Theatre in Cambridge dates back to the early 17th Century, when it is believed that King James I granted a royal charter to the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, giving them the power to prohibit 'idle games and diversions within 5 miles of the town and expel jugglers and actors'. However, the ADC as we know it was founded much later, in the mid 19th Century.

The Hoop Coaching Inn stood almost exactly where the ADC Theatre stands today. By the beginning of the 1850s, most of the inn was owned by William Ekin, a brewer and wine merchant. In 1855, Ekin let a group of Trinity and King’s College students, thereby known as the CUADC, hire out two of the upstairs rooms, which were accessible from Park Street, or through the back entrance on Jesus Lane. There was a library with newspapers, a piano, and drinks were available.

They used the hotel as a meeting place for acting out sketches and plays; some of them accommodated in rooms at the back of the hotel where the stables were, and where the front of the ADC is now. The Hoop Inn was a sprawling set of buildings; until 1960 Park Street was just a narrow lane.

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 was no enthusiasm at all for this by the University Proctors or indeed the Colleges; here was an organisation of students formally created and running finance accounts with no authority from, or indeed responsibility to, the University or any of the Colleges.  But after thorough inspections were made of the building, their grudging approval was given.

The CUADC flourished, with what was called a 'new stage' being built in 1860. And 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 restarted in 1888.

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.

1930s - 1970s

In 1933 there was a serious fire which 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. 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.

The upper part of the current building was constructed by 1935, partly with money borrowed from the Cambridge University Rugby Club, a debt later paid off during a period of financial stringency in the 1960s. And until 1939, the ADC custodian lived with his wife and son in a flat in the ground floor of the ADC; the son worked in Millers the nearby musical shop and ran the then ADC ticket-booking system from there.

Excepting a few periods of closure and redevelopment, performances have been staged almost continuously from the reopening in 1935 through to the present day. 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, including (but by no means limited to) Miriam Margoyles, Eleanor Bron, Tilda Swinton, Emma Thompson, Sandi Toksvig and Rachel Weisz.

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

From the end of the war through to the early 1970s, the ADC Theatre enjoyed both the best of times and suffered the worst. The 1950s and early 1960s were an exciting time to be up at Cambridge. Sir David Frost has commented '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 CUADC 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 half-naked women. 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.

The University in the 1970s

The 1970s were make-or-break time for the ADC. An aging building, high inflation and growing expectations of audience comfort combined to cast doubt on its future. Seating, toilets, heating and ventilation – all 35 or more years old – were increasingly unsatisfactory. Wiring needed to be replaced and the lighting board was coming to the end of its life. A property developer and a nearby college had both expressed interest in acquiring the site and for a time consideration was given to selling up and investing the capital in refurbishing the long-closed Festival Theatre in Newmarket Road.

Instead, an enthusiastic group of old and current members, led by the late Charles Maude, set about revitalising the existing theatre with ad-hoc funding from several sources including the University, the City and local business. Charles also designed the ‘ADC’ lettering on the front of the building and the lion motif. Productions grew in number from twenty or so in 1960 to over forty in 1974 and other ventures, such as a much-improved bar and classic film programmes each summer, stablised the finances. However, there was a serious down side to such greatly increased activity, the burden it placed on a wholly volunteer staff.

Paradoxically it was this demonstration of successful activity which opened the way to the next phase of a long history. With the active support of the late Trevor Gardner, University Treasurer, and Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, later Master of St Catharine’s, the University were persuaded that a future association was not merely propping up a declining operation. After long negotiations, the University leased the theatre premises in 1974, on advantageous terms which ensured its early refurbishment as well as long-term security. It also guaranteed the rights of the Amateur Dramatic Club, relieved from the constant burden of building management. Since 1974, the University has paid a peppercorn rent to the CUADC, 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.

An exhibition marking the ADC’s 120th anniversary was held in the University Library in 1975 and its catalogue ended with encouraging words:

“the Theatre can now lay to rest some of its anxieties and can look ahead with reasonable confidence”.

In fact, the ensuing forty years were to be packed with more developments than in the preceding century.

Redevelopments to Present

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 ADC continued to flourish with a succession of brilliant and devoted members, but by the end of the 1990s, there was increasing concern about the suitability of the building: upgrades since 1974 had been limited and piecemeal as ADC funding had faltered. There was no reception area, and so performance attendees queued up along the street, sometimes in the rain, to gain admission, buying tickets, literally, at the door, and the flexibility of backstage facilities and of the bar area was woefully inadequate. In 2001/2 an assessment of upgrade requirements was carried through and a proposal to carry out all the refurbishment over a one-summer period was put together, and nearly was approved. However, some of the management committee were very concerned that this was too ambitious, so the ADC asked the University to manage the programme of extensive upgrading. The University agreed.

The first phase (phase 1a) of the dramatic redevelopment project took place over the long vacation of 2003: utilities were re-sited so as to allow the subsequent phases to take place, and the building’s foundations were reinforced: the existing foundations were woefully insufficient, just a few courses of bricks below ground level. When asked why indeed the building remained standing, the reply of the excellent project manager Lionel Lambert of the University Estate Management Department, kneeling down and peering gloomily into the existing foundations merely said “habit, just habit". The new season duly started in October, with a much-anticipated new bar!

The second phase of the redevelopment (phase 1b), April to September 2004, required the closure of the theatre for a term. It included the re-modelling of existing ground floor areas, thus improving facilities for staff and customers alike with the long-awaited improvement to the foyer and ticketing area, and further improvement in disabled access, particularly for those in wheelchairs, and the facade of the building was re-modelled to what it is now.

The following phase in 2005 (phase 2a) also focused on accessibility; the foyer lift was installed and a new corridor on the first floor allowed full access between the bar and auditorium on that side. By raising the upper flight of the main entry stairs, there was improvement to the raking of auditorium seating giving better sight-lines and better leg-room for the new seating, which proved very popular. The technical control rooms on the second floor were enlarged and slightly relocated so as to link with the new lift. With this, a very ambitious and successful new ticketing system was implemented in Easter 2005 (later replaced by our current ticketing client, Spektrix, founded by former Theatre Manager, Michael Nabarro).

The last of this four-phase upgrade (phase 2b) was completed in the Summer of 2008, closing the Theatre for Easter term and the Summer break. This phase saw the construction of a two-story extension to provide new dressing rooms and a brand-new multi-purpose studio space aptly named the Larkum Studio, after Charles Larkum (1942–2006) who served as the Chairman of the Theatre’s Executive Committee from 1999 until 2006. The ADC was now one of the only two theatres in Cambridge with full pit, flying tower and good stage facilities; the refurbishment won the Local Authority Award in 2009 for the ‘Best Technical Design and Construction’ in East Anglia.

All four phases of this ambitious redevelopment project were led by architect and now-ADC regular, Barry Brown, following on from his work redeveloping the Cambridge Arts Theatre in the mid-1990s.

The ADC Theatre had previously been making plans for several years to introduce a ventilation system into the auditorium. These plans were developed and formalised between 2016-17 and the project was completed during the Summer of 2018 alongside the installation of two lighting bridges, new auditorium seating, and a much-needed refurbishment of the theatre's offices, bar and front of house areas. While the building was closed to the public, the management team launched their 'ADC On Tour' season in pop-up venues across Cambridge. The centre-piece of this season was an adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, which took place in the Fitzwilliam Museum's Temporary Exhibition Space.

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.

With Thanks To

This page on the Theatre’s history was compiled by:

David Adamson, graduate of King's College, former Director of University Estates Management and loyal friend of the ADC.

Geoff Skelsey, former President of the CUADC (1964-65) and latterly Principal Assistant Registrary and Chief of Staff to the Vice-Chancellor before being again involved with the ADC, as Senior Treasurer and Licensee. He was Secretary to the University Theatre Syndicate 1999-2003 and is currently a Trustee.

 James Baggaley, former Manager of the ADC Theatre (2007-09).