Bringing the house down

Rebuild or die: that's the choice facing Sadler's Wells. But can an imminent pounds 38m revamp really help transform the theatre's flagging fort unes? By David Benedict
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The Independent Culture
"When we go down to hell, we shall find it is the Sadler's Wells foyer." Ballet critic Clement Crisp is not alone in his appraisal of the front-of-house facilities at one of London's most famous theatres. What's more, the rage-inducing traffic jams around the ludicrously cramped box- office and inaccessible bars are just the beginning of its problems.

On 15 July, after years of soul-searching, campaigning and fund-raising, everything will change. The hoardings will go up, the building be torn down and in the autumn of 1998, at a cost of pounds 38m, a new Sadler's Wells will open.

There are those who gasp in horror at what they see as an act of sacrilege. This, they cry, is a beloved, historic building, built by Lilian Baylis of blessed memory. That much is true. Having made a popular success of the Old Vic, Baylis wanted to rebuild the then derelict Islington theatre to house plays and opera at prices accessible to all. Her zeal succeeded and Sadler's Wells re-opened on 6 January 1931 with a timely production of Twelfth Night starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Two weeks later, Enid Cruickshank was singing Carmen.

In between the two poles of the repertoire, the accent was on variety, harking back to earlier incarnations of the theatre, which began life as Mr Sadler's Musicke House, built in 1683 over a medicinal well discovered on the site earlier that year. (And it's still there, buried beneath the stalls.) A 1699 variety programme included sword-dancing, acrobatics, a vocal concert and novelty acts, with the added incentives of drinks and cakes. Whether the 1930s entertainments ran to the live cat-eating act announced on the same bill, history doesn't relate. During the 200- odd years in between, though, the theatre did present, as listed by Louise Levene, "rope-dancing, military extravaganzas performed by trained dogs lured about the stage by strategically placed meals, a one-legged ventriloquist, Grimaldi in pantomime, Henry V on horseback, aquatic dramas in a 90ft tank, roller-skating, boxing by Gentleman Jim Corbett and, in 1895, moving picture shows".

Baylis's other great achievement was the encouragement of fellow talents, notably Dame Ninette de Valois, whose tireless vision, harnessing Russian training and native talent, created the Vic-Wells ballet. She discovered the young Frederick Ashton and thanks to her, in 1934, Alicia Markova (nee Marks) became the first British ballerina to dance Odette in a complete Swan Lake. In the same year, 15-year-old Peggy Hookham changed her name to Margot Fontes (and later, again, to Fonteyn) to dance in De Valois's The Haunted Ballroom. When the company decamped to Covent Garden, the Sadler's Wells Opera Ballet took its place. The opera company was equally successful, premiering Britten's Peter Grimes only a month after the end of the war; but, in 1968, it too left for the bigger stage of the Coliseum (where it was soon renamed English National Opera). After that, only the ballet company was left in residence. So when, in 1990, it too upped and fled to the wide open spaces, to become the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the feeling arose that something had to be done, and soon.

The 1,499-seat auditorium is no pleasure-dome. The decor is glum, the leg-room non-existent and the sightlines terrible. The rake for the stalls seating is so minimal that, should the person sitting in front of you be taller than 5ft2in, you are likely to spend the evening seeing nothing but the dandruff on their collar.

On stage, it's worse. Even if they wanted to put audiences through all that, many leading companies can't even consider playing there because the stage is simply too small. Those that can squeeze their work on there have to contend with the absence of wing space on stage right, which plays havoc with scene-changes and rules out many large-scale touring sets. The backstage facilities are archaic - a mechanic had to be sent for at curtain-up on the opening night of last year's Swan Lake when the performers discovered there was no hot water for the prehistoric showers.

On 4 January last year, the day that the Lottery opened its doors to applications for cash, Sadler's Wells delivered its bid. As far as Chief Executive Ian Albery was concerned, it was a case of redevelop or die. Encouraged by the Arts Council, the theatre improved and extended its already ambitious plans to create a versatile and flexibile space for dance and lyric theatre costing pounds 38m, 25 per cent of which Sadler's Wells will have to raise in matched funding. There was a typically knee-jerk response from the tabloid press: no wonder, they'd been handed the story on a plate by the National Lottery, who chose to release it on a Sunday, the slowest news day.

Val Bourne of Dance Umbrella was, and is, steadfast in defence of the decision: "I'm fairly sentimental about the building. When I was a dancer, I performed there; but, when you look at the size of the stage, the facilities and the companies you want to programme, it just doesn't add up. This is simply not a case of fat cats coming in for the cream. Sadler's Wells has tried for 20 years to do something about it. You just have to watch the faces of international companies used to the major European houses when they see what they have to deal with here. There's a limit to how much you can get away with by saying `Isn't it interesting historically?' " Dance critic Allan Robertson agrees: "The people who hate the idea of the rebuild probably never go there. It's false nostalgia. It will be the fifth theatre on the site."

But not all the nay-sayers are arch traditionalists. Dance critic Jann Parry isn't convinced that Albery's plans are viable. While the new theatre is being built, Sadler's Wells will relocate to the Royalty (off Kingsway), currently owned by the LSE. Their continuing use of this famously woebegone theatre as a lecture hall will lead to major programming problems, putting limits on matinees, creating difficulties for companies on brief runs, cutting time for technical rehearsals, increasing staffing costs around the erecting and striking of sets with overnight get-ins... the list goes on.

And what of the new theatre and its management? Jann Parry welcomes the venture but harbours grave misgivings. "More provision needs to be made for office space for dance companies, a physiotherapy centre - a genuine centre, in fact, for dance." She describes the current Sadler's Wells policy as "a shambles" and characterises Ian Albery's regime as brusque and brutal.

Katharine Dore of Adventures in Motion Pictures agrees. "Unless things change dramatically, I cannot see a time when AMP will perform at Sadler's Wells again. The terms under which a company hires the building have grown progressively worse. We used to be based there and many of the staff are extremely supportive, but there's been a decline in trust and co-operation at a higher level. Contractually, their crews have been cut drastically and the box-office service has been so lousy they had to bring in the Ticketmaster agency, but we were the ones who had to take the resulting 10 per cent cut on ticket prices to pay for it. Albery talks about the lowering of costs in the new building, but at whose expense?"

Albery is gung-ho in the face of such criticism. He believes the Royalty will be commercially viable. "We're not like a West- End theatre. We have a huge database and will be able to take our loyal audience with us," he enthuses. As for the problems of the time-share, he points out that the LSE is only there 30 weeks a year and says the problems can be worked around despite the drop in revenue from a reduced seating capacity. Ticket prices will range from pounds 7.50 to pounds 20 on average. "Significantly lower," he points out, "than most other London theatres."

The Wells's reliance on subsidy is similarly low. "Public funding accounts for only 5 per cent of our total revenue. Compare that to other organisations running at numbers like 50 per cent. The running costs of the new theatre will be lower, as the present building is so inefficient. We have a fully costed business plan through to the year 2001, with an increased programme with more variety over more weeks. We're in negotiation with Rambert, English National Ballet, Glyndebourne, and English Touring Opera."

But despite the glory of his future plans, has he perhaps aimed too low? The new building's 1,600-seat capacity effectively bars the world's great companies like the Paris Opera and the New York City Ballet. "A house seating over 2,000 wouldn't work for smaller-scale dance. Who knows? We're about audience development. If we nurture and develop that audience to the point where a permanent large-scale house is demanded, it will be thanks to Sadler's Wells."

Whatever the doubts about the details, the dance world, not famed for collective forward-thinking and co-operation, is virtually united behind the long-dreamt-of scheme. Thanks to Albery's development director, the indefatigable Griselda Bear, who has taken a leaf out of university funding bodies' books and tapped major tax concessions - Sadler's Wells only needs to raise another pounds 1m of matched funding in the next two years. At that point, London will, at last, have a lyric theatre it can be proud of.

But consider the case of the splendidly rebuilt Edinburgh Festival Theatre, which upon its recent completion suffered an almost immediate collapse in support from its funding bodies. With confusion, not least in government circles, about the difference between Lottery and Arts Council monies, we shall just have to pray the new Sadler's Wells doesn't suffer the same fate.

n A charity auction and the star-studded Sadler's Wells Finale take place on Sunday from 5.30pm, Rosebery Ave, London, EC1. For details and tickets, call 0171-613 3000