The new Sadler's Wells is said to be the sixth theatre on its increasingly fashionable, but once disreputable, site. It is also one of the first of the new wave of Lottery-funded houses racing to be finished. Under the guidance of its chief executive and theatre consultant, Ian Albery, it gambles that a new improved building will put right some of the inherent problems of under-funding by producing a space that will attract a new audience to better-mounted shows in surroundings that solve the basic theatrical problems and catch the mood of the time. This approach can be seen as a reaction to venues designed as plush nights out for the rich, or large institutions such as the South Bank.
The aim is an intimate performance space with links to the local community which challenges as well as entertains. In all of this Albery is the heir to Lilian Baylis, who brought affordable lyric theatre and dance to the people of Islington when it was still called opera and ballet. The theatre built for her company in 1931 by Frank Matcham's practice was workmanlike, restricted and not very inspiring. Even the stage-struck romantics at the Theatre Trust describe it as 'cheerless', and it has been largely demolished.
Although claims are made for the continuity that the new building represents, this resides more in the spirit of the place and the orientation of its auditorium, now bursting out of the confines of the site, than the remains of rear and side walls incorporated into the fabric. In the need to contain some of the £36 million or so cost and the linked problems of delivering a complicated building on an impossible site as quickly as possible, it was decided not to level the site and start again.
This has meant that the auditorium retains some of the four-square feel of the original, but otherwise it is an entirely new building. Actually, it is more than one new building, it is a colony, packed artfully into a triangle of terrace-fronted streets and including the refurbished Lilian Baylis Theatre, enlarged rehearsal rooms and the Community and Education Centre with its own foyer and cafe. This tangible reminder of the community- based nature of the organisation is to be reached through an entrance shared by public, performers, stage staff and front-of-house (a potentially combustible mixture) when it opens next year.
At present, the stage door is a green glass slice out of an existing three-storey terrace, a flash gap before the fly tower and the theatre proper. This latter takes the outer form of a satisfyingly crafted brick box with the full panoply of rubbed arches, cast sills and an open corner that sails on past the entrance with a projecting vertical arcade for future displays, looking, with its access cradle, like a homage to the practice towers beloved of fire-fighters everywhere. Through this lovingly built, softly mottled, red-brick skin, the more ordered geometry of the interior slides on its own axis, the brickwork elegantly trimmed by steel to present crisp triangular forms of metal and glass.
Above it, the precisely formed crystalline panels of the fly tower beckon the jaded traveller from the indigestible post-modern chaos of the Angel underground station, its fibre optics promising a stylish and ordered time down the hill. All very controlled, legible and urbane, a lesson in good manners from Nicholas Hare Architects, who worked in association with Albery, and the project's main architect, Arts Team @ rhwl.
The interior, very much the work of Nick Thompson of Arts Team @ rhwl, is a somewhat more visceral affair. This is architecture which gives you raw serviced space with a few frills and a lot of steel. Passing through the dramatic four-storey glass wall with its proscenium-arched supermarket door and a series of exhibition spaces, the audience becomes part of the show.
A giant video projection screen displays moving images to inside and out. Underfoot, polished honey-coloured stone gives way to timber, the bars and counters are simple green slate constructions, the ceilings metal, and the lighting faux-theatrical. This is a flexible, multi-purpose foyer. The vertiginous main stair exemplifies the robust detailing that suggests the building can take anything thrown at it. This reverses the common trend for plush fronts-of-house to be paid for by spartan dressing rooms. Both ends of the theatre are treated in the same tough, no-nonsense way, with the technology very much on view.
To the rear there are bold works of art, and the outer walls of the auditorium will soon be painted a raw primary red just in case the audience feels lost.
Inside the auditorium, the seats are arranged for the best possible sightlines for dance. This means a steep rake and a very flat alignment, the audience separated from the large new stage by an 80-strong orchestra pit. If nothing else, everyone has a perfect view, the performance space is vast and the acoustics sound fine. Moreover, following a textbook exercise carried out (and published) by the theatre, some of the best seats are available for wheelchair users and their friends.
The stage itself has been increased from a basic 10 x 10m to 15 x 15m (going from the Old Vic to the Coliseum in one bound). It has a structure that will allow a trap to be introduced at any point, giant screwjacks that can produce forestage, promenade floor or conference centre, and a German flying system that will go from Tannhausser to Rambert in 15 seconds. In sum, far less has been achieved by far grander halls and it might be said that this is the end of the story.
However, the sense that this is a machine for dancing in will not be to all tastes. In the interests of flexibility, the walls and ceilings are basically large technical galleries lined with Arts Team @ rhwl's patented metal screens. Meant to be a transparent and tuneable foil that can be lit from in front or behind to change the whole nature of the space for individual productions, the unlit result is like sitting inside the set for some Andrew Lloyd Webber rollerblading musical, with a similar emphasis on making a meal of the effects.
Perhaps that's the point. Certainly there are no boxes or any other suggestion of plush, save for the lustrous silk curtains, and it is clear that the space will come into its own when productions can be devised to show it off properly, extending performers and lights into the auditorium.
And if, like the works of Lloyd Webber, it dates surprisingly quickly, it can always be changed, its very impermanence a legitimate architectural device for challenging cosy expectations, for keeping audience as well as artists on their toes.
Barry Brown is a partner in Bland, Brown & Cole