Lights, Curtains, Action!

Lighting Consultants, Colin Ball and Jonathan Redden, explain the pioneering innovation in theatre lighting from whale oil to low energy LEDs.

A full restoration of the original 1812 interior of Theatre Royal Drury Lane, arguably one of the most important theatres in the world, merges lighting methods from the 19th and 21st centuries to create as authentic an experience as possible – including recreating flickering candlelight from low energy LEDs installed along the staircase in response to a request from Andrew Lloyd Webber, who self-funded the £60m transformation of the Grade I listed Georgian masterpiece.

“The lighting is so intrinsic to the space that our idea was to create a sense of timelessness – the feeling that the lighting has always been that way, but you can’t quite tell when it was installed.”

Extensive research was undertaken with architect Haworth Tompkins, including determining how each paint finish looks in daylight and under artificial light. Always at the forefront of lighting technologies, the Theatre Royal was one of the first to implement innovations such as whale oil, gas and, later, electricity. Drawings, financial records and publications from the long history of the theatre were studied to determine the focus of the lighting in each space, whether low level standard, wall sconce or chandelier. In national archives original sections by original architect Benjamin Wyatt showed his desire for low level gas lanterns integrated within the handrails. Although technically very difficult to achieve, cable was threaded through original stone to remain faithful to his intent. A lantern from one of his surviving stately homes was laser scanned and a virtual model created, adapted to the theatre proportions, with 3D printed new moulds produced to cast the iron posts using traditional methods appropriate to 1812. All the diffusers in the chandeliers and sconces were hand blown and cut, according to 19th century techniques, including ironmongery and cut glass.

The Grand Saloon re-purposes chandeliers found in storage and re-shaped, moulded and re-cast in Georgian proportions, while wall lanterns were created from pencil sketches found within the archives. The crystal pendants in the foyer were scaled up to 2m in diameter and fitted with both diffuser and chrome spotlights, remaining true to their original appearance but with hidden projection. The staircases and light lobbies into the auditorium are almost entirely lit by reflected light from the hanging art works.

Throughout the theatre the latest theatre lamps, driver and dimmers provide stable dimming down to 0%, with a shift into 2700K warm low light from daylight filtering in through the original light wells. Bright ceilings and vertical illumination allows the eye to adjust gradually and comfortably from daylight through to the 50 Lux maximum auditorium interior.

Within the auditorium a series of hidden narrow beam spots accent the fine plasterwork, with this technique replicated at low level to locally illuminate each step and seat number to ensure safe navigation regardless of the light level during the performance. In a moment of inspiration, lamps in the hands of four muse statues in the Rotunda have been used as part of the emergency lighting solution! No other site in Britain has a longer history of continuous theatre use, first granted by Charles II in 1662. The renewal has revealed and restored the foyers and staircase – reinstating three original entrances to the front of house foyer and making the entire building fully accessible for the first time. New bars and retail reimagine the theatre as an all-day destination for everyone to enjoy entertainment, dining, drinking, art and culture in the heart of London’s Covent Garden.