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Sir Ian McKellen inspires £16million gift to Cambridge Arts Theatre

Cambridge Arts Theatre to close for a year from January 2025



A new studio theatre – a second space – similar to the Donmar in London – and which will be on offer to local amateur dramatic groups as well as touring shows, is to be opened on the roof of Cambridge Arts Theatre. The space will seat 200 in the audience and be fully equipped for performances, both ground-breaking and traditional.

This will be part of a multi-million refurbishment of the whole theatre – the plan, long nurtured by the theatre’s CEO, Dave Murphy, was finally announced last week.

It has been made possible by a £16 million gift “brokered” by Sir Ian McKellen. As a student at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, the knight of theatre trod the Arts Theatre’s boards. This stage launched his career.


 Cambridge Arts Theatre – image by Ian Chalk Architects

Cambridge Arts Theatre – image by Ian Chalk Architects

After a suggestion by Sir Ian, the donation from Lord David and Dame Susie Sainsbury via the Gatsby Charitable Foundation will mean the theatre can complete the first phase of a major redevelopment – and create many more of its own in house shows. The design is by Ian Chalk Architects.

The plan is for a radical refurbishment of the current 666 seat auditorium, upgraded audience facilities, improved technical services, sight lines and acoustic performance.

This will give the theatre greater scope for creating new in-house productions and expand its ability to invite top touring shows to the city.

David Murphy said: “We want to invite the best of the national productions and the best from overseas.”

 Cambridge Arts Theatre – image by Ian Chalk Architects

Cambridge Arts Theatre – image by Ian Chalk Architects

It is planned that the theatre will close after the next pantomime finishes in January 2025 and reopen in time for the following panto in December 2026. If this goes to plan, the theatre will be dark for about 10 months.

David Sainsbury said. “We were first alerted to the need for wholesale refurbishment at the theatre by Sir Ian McKellen during the tour of his one-man show (to celebrate his 80th birthday in 2019). He made his own acting debut at Cambridge Arts Theatre in 1959, and we are delighted to make the donation today.”

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Lord Sainsbury added: “The Cambridge Arts Theatre sits at the very heart of Cambridge’s rich cultural heritage, and the careers of many of our finest actors and directors of both stage and screen have started at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.”

Among the Cambridge students who went on to become stars are Sir Derek Jacobi, Dame Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, the late Lord Richard Attenborough, John Cleese, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Tom Hollander, Rachel Weisz, Nicola Walker, Olivia Colman, and Tom Hiddleston. Writers and directors include Sam Mendes and Julian Fellowes.


Sir Ian McKellen

Sir Ian McKellen

Dave Murphy told CambsNews: “We hope to offer the studio space to local groups putting on shows and further open up the theatre for the whole community. We plan to completely redesign the theatre.

“The design will still be woody but very different. We need to bring all our systems up to date. They are 30 years old. We need to make the theatre able to face the next 100 years.”

He said this would build on the vision of the theatre’s founder, John Maynard Keynes the economist and bursar of King’s College, who founded the theatre in 1936 for the people of the town. The plans for the renovation will include the studio theatre when the funds are available.

Dave Murphy said: “Thanks to this extraordinarily generous gift from the Gatsby Foundation, the theatre is now at the dawn of a new era.

“I am very proud of the part I have played in formulating the plans for the new incarnation of the theatre and helping secure this transformational gift to enable the works to begin.

“On behalf of all of us at the venue, I want to thank the Gatsby Foundation for their generosity and belief in Cambridge Arts Theatre.”


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