The Sadler's Wells Theatre, which has just been rebuilt at a cost of more than pounds 40m - half of it Lottery money - had expected to play host to 110 Opera House performances between April and September next year.
Now the theatre must remain empty or try to book in other shows on greatly reduced terms. "I'll need staff I haven't got to fill the gap and extra money to buy in other companies at short notice," said its director, Ian Albery, yesterday. "They'll know I'm desperate. I'll have no bargaining power."
The north London theatre is the chief victim of the Opera House's aborted programme. Founded by Lilian Bayliss and a world-renowned centre for dance, Sadler's Wells is close to the end of a rebuilding programme that has seen initial costs of pounds 39m rise to pounds 42m (mainly due to problems with underground water - hence the site's original name). The interest payments on the loan taken out to meet this overrun were already threatening its budget for next year. The new ROH cancellations may prove the last straw.
"A brand new theatre, built at great public expense, is to be dark for months to enable Covent Garden to sort out its industrial relations problems," said Mr Albery. "We're purely a pawn in that battle. Now we're talking about pounds 1m to sort our program- ming problems." Without compensation, he believes the theatre will go bust.
Sadler's Wells receives a much smaller subsidy than the ROH or the English National Opera and the National Theatre but has had a policy of maintaining lower ticket prices.
"We're not about big names and stars; we're a people's theatre." said Mr Albery. Its future may now lie in the hands of the Arts Council and London Arts Board as well as the minister Chris Smith: Sadler's Wells sits right in the middle of his Islington constituency.
"Obviously, no one would want to see Sadler's Wells without a programme for next year, and I am sure that the appropriate bodies will do their utmost to ensure that that doesn't happen," he said yesterday. "As Secretary of State for Culture, I have to treat every theatre in exactly the same way."
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