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Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, revealed in a new old light

Words:
Stephen Cousins

Flickering LEDs are part of the theatrical effect in the restoration of the West End theatre that pioneered light from the early days of whale oil

Drury Lane Theatre’s former glories restored – including state of the art lighting – courtesy of £60 million of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s personal fortune.
Drury Lane Theatre’s former glories restored – including state of the art lighting – courtesy of £60 million of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s personal fortune. Credit: Philip Vile

Disney’s Frozen is the musical entertaining crowds at the refurbished Theatre Royal at Drury Lane in London, and the choice of production seems apt given the stasis forced on theatrical venues as lockdowns kept crowds away.

The £60 million restoration of the grade I-listed building, with its grand Regency interiors, red carpets and gold leaf detailing, is a welcome distraction for audiences fed up with the TV. It has also been a labour of love for the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who self-funded the project and owns and operates the venue through his company LW Theatres.

Haworth Tompkins’ design was conceived to protect and restore the original features of the 1810 building, and update it to meet the standards expected of modern theatres.

It has revealed and restored the foyers and staircase – arguably the most impressive surviving sequence of Georgian public interior spaces designed by original architect Benjamin Dean Wyatt. Three of his entrances to the front of house foyer were reinstated and later additions, which segregated the space, removed. New bars and retail space extend opportunities for revenue generation in the new normal. Fully-accessible circulation includes a new lift and, for the first time in almost a century, the auditorium can be entered directly from street level rather than via the basement.

The auditorium itself dates from the later Edwardian period. This was remodelled and reshaped to create a tighter curve, bringing the audience closer to the stage, and to introduce wider seats, better legroom and improved sightlines. A full technical refit includes a flexible stage that can be altered to enable performances in the round. 

  • In the ground floor lobby LED fittings are used in up-sized chandeliers, for diffuse lights as well as spotlights.
    In the ground floor lobby LED fittings are used in up-sized chandeliers, for diffuse lights as well as spotlights. Credit: Philip Vile
  • Fittings were installed as contemporary yet suitable for 1810; sympathetic yet high performance.
    Fittings were installed as contemporary yet suitable for 1810; sympathetic yet high performance. Credit: Philip Vile
  • The Wyatt staircase has been sympathetically lit with a combination of discreet and traditional Torchiere standard lamps.
    The Wyatt staircase has been sympathetically lit with a combination of discreet and traditional Torchiere standard lamps. Credit: Philip Vile
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The team realised lamps in the hands of four muse statues in the Rotunda could be used as part of the emergency lighting

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.  That pioneering spirit continues with the groundbreaking use of 21st century stage technologies and the latest low energy LED lamps, fused with original 19th century craftsmanship, including ironmongery and cut glass. 

Colin Ball, lighting director at lighting consultant BDP, says: ‘The lighting is so intrinsic to the space that part of 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.’ 

This is the West End’s first use of dimming technologies across an entire theatre to maximise flexibility and balance sensitivity and ambience. LEDs were considered crucial to cut energy consumption and future-proof compatibility and maintenance for the client, although they often struggle with low-level dimming and can visibly flicker.

ETC supplied an advanced theatrical control system that overcomes this issue to deliver a consistent ‘low golden hum’ similar to the original gas lighting in the historic areas, including the Grand Saloon bar and foyers.

‘Ironically, when we presented our scheme to Andrew Lloyd Webber, he asked if the standard lamps in the staircase could be made to flicker to look like candle light in the evening,’ says Ball. ‘Happily, we were able to say “yes, we can programme the flicker in”, so it was lucky we chose this rather than a more standard system.’

The lighting team and architect worked closely together to determine how each paint finish would look in daylight and under artificial candle light. Much of the lighting is switched off during the day to replicate naturally lit Georgian interiors.

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. 

Rather than replicate period fittings, the intention was to make them look contemporary, yet appropriate for 1810, with updated equipment to meet modern illumination requirements. For example, the three crystal bowl pendants in the foyer, by crystal specialist Wilkinson, were scaled up to 1.8m in diameter and fitted with a series of diffuse lamps and chrome spotlights to create a balance of ambient wash and focused spotlighting. 

Large chandeliers hung in the Grand Saloon and private rooms started out as 1970s pendants removed from storage. Their red velvet was stripped away and crystal and brass components re-aligned to match longer and slimmer Regency era chandeliers still being used in Windsor, Liverpool and Bath. Each integrates hidden chrome spotlights for table accenting.

Sometimes the shortage of skilled trades for lighting work became apparent, says Ball: ‘For example, Wilkinson rang to say we had to order the cups for the chandelier lamps straight away because the last crystal glass blower in the UK was about to retire.’ All the diffusers in the chandeliers and sconces were hand blown and cut, according to 19th century techniques.

  • 1970s chandeliers in the Grand Saloon have been refurbished to emulate more traditional Regency styles, with integrated mini-spots to invisibly light tables.
    1970s chandeliers in the Grand Saloon have been refurbished to emulate more traditional Regency styles, with integrated mini-spots to invisibly light tables. Credit: Philip Vile
  • LED torchiere lamps on the staircases and upper foyer are programmed to imitate the ‘flicker’ of gaslight. Muse statue lamps are part of the emergency lighting strategy.
    LED torchiere lamps on the staircases and upper foyer are programmed to imitate the ‘flicker’ of gaslight. Muse statue lamps are part of the emergency lighting strategy. Credit: Philip Vile
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Heritage lighting specialist William Sugg, which still installs and maintains remaining gaslit street lights in Westminster, made all the external lanterns, and the ‘torchiere’ standard lamps integrated into handrails, including those on the cantilevered staircase.

A small scale cross section drawing from 1810 revealed the positions of the lamps on handrails, but not the full design, so BDP’s lighting team looked to surviving buildings designed by Benjamin Wyatt for inspiration.

A suitable original lamp was found in a stately home in Manchester. This was laser scanned and 3D printed as a mould to create traditional casts. One of the last remaining blacksmiths in the country then cast the lanterns using the same technique as when the theatre was built.

But it wasn’t all about ornate illumination. Controlled low glare optics and hidden fittings were also installed to deliver the required light levels and uniformity for a public building, with a particular focus on level and route changes where crushing could become an issue. 

In a moment of inspiration the team realised that lamps in the hands of four muse statues in the Rotunda could be used as part of the emergency lighting solution. ‘It was one of the joys of this project,’ says Ball. ‘No one usually thinks of emergency lighting as anything other than Bug Eye floodlights and ugly bulkheads, which misses the idea of integration.’

To keep light levels as low as possible throughout the day and evening, the optics and finishes of the corridors and spaces were modelled as a sequence, so the eye adjusts gradually and comfortably from daylight through to the 50 Lux maximum auditorium interior. ‘It’s about lighting balance, you have to avoid glare so people aren’t stepping into a dark space immediately after a very bright space,’ says Ball.

The Edwardian auditorium required a stealthy approach to illumination. Existing pendants, balcony sconces and chandeliers were retained and updated by specialist Dernier & Hamlyn with more efficient optics. Large pendants at high level were fitted with pencil-thin narrowest beam optics to deliver a uniform light – suitable to read by, without making the pendants themselves too bright.

In addition, integrated and hidden details reveal the ceilings and architectural details, while reflected light from seat-end lettering provides low glare accents to each step to ensure safe navigation to seating.

Safe navigation in the dark is a theme that will resonate with those involved in the Theatre Royal’s restoration. The pandemic took hold just over a year into construction, so seeing it through to completion came to symbolise, for many, the recovery of the West End as a whole. 

‘For nearly a year, virtually the only people you saw around Covent Garden were the people working on this project, that’s how severe the West End was hit,’ says Ball. ‘It became a flag bearer for the sector.’ 

As Covid restrictions ease and audiences return to this and other theatres, there ­certainly seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. 

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