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Starting off as a ‘musick house’ way back in 1683, crowds were curious about the newly discovered wells by owner Dick Sadler for their supposed healing waters. This little scam didn’t last too long, and the site of ‘Sadler’s Wells’ needed a new public draw. Hence, circus acts and freak shows dominated its 17th to 18th century playbills, particularly during summertime.
Later used for pantomimes and comic opera, it played up its unique water tank feature in the early 19th century, putting on water-themed shows. But once drama censorship was lifted in 1843, Sadler’s Wells officially became a theatre, starting off with some of Shakespeare’s most lauded plays. But what followed was years of management switches and frequent reinvention, from a skating rink to a wrestling arena to a cinema. This identity crisis meant the worn-out theatre closed in 1915. It was thanks to Lilian Baylis, then owner of the flourishing Old Vic, that Sadler’s Wells was recovered in 1925 (with Winston Churchill’s support, among other leading public figures) and adopted as a venue for the growing popularity of opera and dance, especially ballet with the setting up of Sadler’s Wells Ballet School.
This tradition followed it into the second half of the 20th century, particularly as a career launchpad for up-and-coming performers and an eccentric production home in its hidden off-West-End location. But its bare bones design and poor acoustics meant it had a much-needed fix-up in the late 1990s, with some parts entirely knocked down. The sixth theatre to stand on the site opened in 1998, with a bigger stage, increased seating capacity, and a variety of performance companies working in-house.