sadlers wells

Sadler's Wells Theatre

Sadler's Wells Theatre is the name of six theatres that have been built since 1683 at a site on Rosebery Avenue, Clerkenwell in the London Borough of Islington. The present day theatre seats 1,500 and specialises in dance, ranging from ballet to hip hop, contemporary dance to flamenco. Opera, theatre, visual arts and dance on screen also feature in the mix.

First theatre and pleasure gardens

Richard Sadler opened a "Musick House" in 1683 and the name Sadler's Wells originates from his name and the rediscovery of monastic springs on his property. The well water being thought to have medicinal properties, Sadler was prompted to claim that drinking the water from the wells would be effective against "dropsy, jaundice, scurvy, green sickness and other distempers to which females are liable - ulcers, fits of the mother, virgin's fever and hypochondriacal distemper".

In 1698 Thomas Guidott the noted Doctor of Physik who popularised the waters of Bath wrote what he called A true and exact account of Sadlers Well, or, The new mineral-waters lately found out at Islington treating of its nature and virtues : together with an enumeration of the chiefest diseases which it is good for, and against which it may be used, and the manner and order of taking of it.

This brought the health giving properties of the hot mineral waters to the country and soon the aristocracy started to arrive to partake in them.

Thus, this still quite rural London location became famous for both water and for music, but as more wells were dug and the exclusiveness of Sadler's Wells declined, so did the quality of the entertainment provided - along with the quality of the clientele who were described as "vermin trained up to the gallows" by a contemporary, while, by 1711, Sadler's Wells was characterized as "a nursery of debauchery".

By the mid-1700s, the existence of two "Theatres Royal" - in Covent Garden and Drury Lane – severely limited the ability of other London theatres to legally perform any drama combined with music, thus rather limiting for opera. Sadler's Wells continued its downward spiral.

Second and third theatres

Since the Theatres Royal confined themselves to operating during the autumn and winter, Sadler's Wells filled the gap in the entertainment market with its summer season, traditionally launched on Easter Monday. Thomas Rosoman, Manager from 1746 to 1771, established the Wells' pedigree for opera production and oversaw the construction of a new stone built theatre, in just seven weeks - at a cost of £4,225 - which opened in April 1765.

The latter half of the 18th century was to see a wide variety of performances. There were patriotic plays and pageants such as "A Fig For The French", which was produced in order to restore national morale after a heavy British defeat in a sea-battle off Grenada at the hands of the French and Spanish fleets. A stirring spectacle reflecting the Fall of the Bastille won from the previously hostile Public Advertiser newspaper the enthusiastic review that: "...Finer scenes of greater effect have not been produced at any Theatre for many years".

During the early years of the 1800s, many famous actors appeared at the theatre - including Edmund Kean – as well as popular comedians such as Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), who for all his gifts as a dramatic actor, is best remembered as the creator of "Joey the Clown" complete with the rouge half-moons on either cheek. However, the period was characterized by much public drunkenness and loutish behaviour, and the rural location prompted the management to provide escorts for patrons after dark to conduct them into central London.

With the construction of a large tank, flooded from the nearby New River, an Aquatic Theatre was used to stage extravagant naval melodramas, such as The Siege of Gibraltar. The theatre also staged successful adaptations of popular novels of the time, such as Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and Thomas Blake's Little Nell; or, The Old Curiosity Shop, which ran here from 11-16 and 18-23 January 1841.

Just as Sadler's Wells seemed at its lowest ebb, an unexpected champion arrived in the shape of distinguished actor-manager Samuel Phelps (1804-1878). His advent coincided with the passing of the Theatres Act 1843 which broke the duopoly in drama of the Theatres Royal and so Phelps was able to introduce a programme of Shakespeare to the Wells. His productions (from 1844-62), notably of Macbeth (1844), Antony and Cleopatra (1849) and Pericles (1854), were much admired by the time he left Sadler's Wells in 1862. The well-known actress Isabella Glyn (1823-1889) made her first notable appearance as Lady Macbeth on this stage.

The latter part of the 19th century saw the pendulum swing back again to melodrama by the 1860s. This period of the theatre's history is affectionately depicted in Arthur Wing Pinero's play Trelawny of the 'Wells' (1898), which portrays Sadler's Wells as outmoded by the new fashion for realism. The theatre declined until, by 1875, plans to turn the theatre in a bath house were proposed and, for a while, the new craze of roller skating was catered to, as the theatre was converted into a roller-skating rink and later a prize fight arena. The theatre was condemned as a dangerous structure in 1878.

Fourth theatre

After re-opening as a theatre in 1879, it became a music hall and featured the legendary performers Marie Lloyd and Harry Champion among its stars. Roy Redgrave, founder of the theatrical dynasty also graced the boards.

Taking on another purpose, the theatre was converted into a cinema. In December 1896, patrons were amazed by the moving pictures of the Theatregraph with film of Persimmon winning the Epsom Derby and a saucy vignette entitled "The Soldier and His Sweetheart Spooning on a Seat".

But still the overall trend was down until Lilian Baylis, who ran the Old Vic Theatre Company, agreed to help set up a charitable foundation to buy the run-down Sadler's Wells, which after a succession of managements in the 1900s, had become increasingly run-down and had been closed in 1915.

Fifth theatre

By 1925, Baylis clearly felt that her Old Vic was enjoying a healthy adolescence. In that year, as a result of her ceaseless labors, she invited the Duke of Devonshire to make a public appeal for funds in order to set up a charitable Foundation designed to buy Sadler's Wells for the nation. Since the committee included such diverse and influential figures as Winston Churchill and Stanley Baldwin, G. K. Chesterton and John Galsworthy, Dame Ethel Smyth and Sir Thomas Beecham, it was not long before enough money had been amassed to buy the freehold.

Designed by FGM Chancellor of Matcham & Co, the new theatre opened on January 6, 1931 with an appropriate production of Twelfth Night and a cast headed by Ralph Richardson as Sir Toby Belch and John Gielgud as Malvolio.

In the beginning of Ms. Baylis’ influence over Sadler's Wells, it was intended that the two theatres should each offer alternating programs of drama and opera. This happened for a short while, but it soon became clear that it was not only impractical, but it also made dubious commercial sense since drama flourished at the Old Vic but lagged behind opera and dance in popularity at the Wells. The Vic-Wells Opera Company was the name of the opera company performing at Sadler's Wells.

By 1933/34 season the acting company under Tyrone Guthrie included a formidable range of acting talent in the person of Charles Laughton, Peggy Ashcroft, Flora Robson, Athene Seyler, Marius Goring and James Mason.

By the 1935/36 season opera and ballet were firmly in the ascendant and Sadler's Wells Ballet with principal dancers Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin became the first truly British ballet company. In 1931 Ninette de Valois was invited to form a ballet company at Sadler's Wells Theatre. It became known as the Vic-Wells Ballet since it performed at both Sadler's Wells Theatre and the Old Vic Theatre in London.

By 1940, while the theatre was closed during the Second World War, the ballet company toured throughout the country, and upon its return changed its name to the Sadler's Wells Ballet. Similarly, the opera company toured to return as Sadler's Wells Opera Company, and it reopened the theatre with Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes.

In 1946, with the re-opening of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, the ballet company was invited to become the resident company there. De Valois therefore decided to found a second company called Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet at Sadler's Wells Theatre. After a short break in the mid-fifties where the Theatre Ballet relocated to Covent Garden, a Royal Charter granted the title of The Royal Ballet on the Sadler's Wells Ballet, while the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet became the “Touring Company of The Royal Ballet” and it returned to base itself at Sadler's Wells Theatre, while continuing to tour the country.

By 1977 another name changes created The Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet and, ten years later, in 1987, the Birmingham Hippodrome and Birmingham City Council invited Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet to re-locate to Birmingham. It did so in 1990 and changes its name to Birmingham Royal Ballet but became independent of the Royal Opera House by 1996.

The Sadler's Wells Opera Company moved out of Sadler's Wells Theatre to the Coliseum Theatre in 1968 and was later renamed English National Opera. Sadler's Wells Theatre then became a temporary home both for foreign companies and those within the UK looking for a metropolitan shop-window. In addition, Sadler's Wells, strategically positioned at some remove from the West End hot-house, was seen as the ideal launching-pad for artists at the outset of their careers. Throughout the 1970s a rich diversity of attractions appeared at Sadler's Wells, recaptured something of its traditional eclecticism. On Rosebery Avenue one could see everything from Handel Opera to the Black Theatre of Prague, to the Netherlands Dance Theatre with its controversial nudity. Also appearing during this period were Merce Cunningham, Marcel Marceau, the Kabuki Theatre, the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Kodo Drummers from Japan. However, such a diverse programme did prevent the Theatre from having a consistent public image.

Briefly in the 1980s, the theatre established the New Sadler's Wells Opera company to play Gilbert and Sullivan and other light opera. The company had some success for a few years and then severed its relationship with the theatre around 1986 and became a touring company. It finally went out of business in 1989.

The Lilian Baylis Theatre opened in October 1988 and it appeared that a permanent theatre company might emerge, but this was limited by funding difficulties. The first performances of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake – which uniquely included an all male cast of swans – took place in the small studio theatre in 1995, before transferring to the West End.

In 1994 Ian Albery became Chief Executive of Sadler's Wells and presided over the planning and eventual rebuilding of the theatre.

On 30th June, 1996, the last ever performance was given at the old theatre before the bulldozers moved in. On St. Valentine's Day the following February a more unusual ceremony took place when Ian Albery buried a time capsule under the centre stalls of the new building.

Sixth theatre

The current theatre opened on 11 October, 1998 with a performance by Rambert Dance Company. The £54 million project was one of the first projects to receive funding from the National Lottery– which contributed £42 million. The new design gave a stage which was wider and deeper and able to accommodate much larger companies and productions than the one it replaced. A new layout to the auditorium accommodated more seats. An extension at the side of the building provided a new ticket office and foyers rising to the full height of the theatre, provided easier audience access to all levels and included bars, cafes and exhibition spaces. As well as the 1,500 seat main auditorium, Sadler's Wells also has a base at the Peacock Theatre near Aldwych. The rebuilt theatre retains the Grade II listing applied to the former theatre in 1950. It also retains access to the remains of the historic wells that still lie beneath the theatre. The architect was RHWL, the acoustic consultant was Arup Acoustics.

When Ian Albery retired as Chief Executive in October 2002 he was succeeded by Jean Luc Choplin, who had recently worked for Disneyland in Paris and Los Angeles and at one time worked with Rudolf Nureyev as a Managing Director of the Paris Opera Ballet.

Although his contract ran until 2007, in January 2004 Choplin announced that he would be taking up a post at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris in 2006 and left shortly afterwards.

Under the Artistic Directorship of Alistair Spalding since 2004, Sadler’s Wells has expanded to become a production house as well as a receiving house hosting performances by visiting companies from the UK and around the world. Balletboyz Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, Sylvie Guillem, Akram Khan , Jonzi D, Russell Maliphant, Wayne McGregor|Random Dance, Jasmin Vardimon and Christopher Wheeldon are all Associate Artists/Companies at Sadler’s Wells. This creates opportunities for them to work alongside each other and other collaborators in developing new work. It also contains the 200-seat Lilian Baylis Theatre. Sadler’s Wells also programmes the Peacock Theatre, Portugal Street, in London’s West End.

Breakin' Convention , the International Festival of hip hop dance theatre has been produced annually by Sadler’s Wells since 2004.

Alistair Spalding had been Director of Programming at Sadler’s Wells since 2000. He became Interim Chief Executive & Artistic Director in August 2004, taking up the role officially in March 2005.

zero degrees, a collaboration between dance artists Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, visual artist Antony Gormley and composer Nitin Sawhney and PUSH a programme of work made by Russell Maliphant for himself and Sylvie Guillem, are just two of the award winning productions to emerge from the new Sadler’s Wells.


  • Arundell, Dennis Drew, The Story of Sadler's Wells, 1683-1977, David and Charles, Newton Abbott, 1978. ISBN 0-7153-7620-9
  • Dent, Edward J., A Theatre for Everybody: the story of The Old Vic and Sadler's Wells, London: 1945.
  • Earl, John and Sell, Michael Guide to British Theatres 1750-1950, pp. 116-7 (Theatres Trust, 2000) ISBN 0-7136-5688-3

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