Stage Electrics and ‘World First’ for Apollo Victoria
The Apollo Victoria theatre in London’s West End, home of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s new production of Bombay Dreams, features a unique architectural lighting installation – making it the world’s first auditorium to be lit entirely with LEDs.
   The 72-year-old Apollo, a cinema-theatre building, designed by Ernest Wamsley Lewis and now Grade II listed, has a wonderfully ornate interior decorated in a submarine motif with fish, shells and other aquatic emblems adorning the plasterwork.
   The LED auditorium lighting system takes Lewis’s concept of simulating an undersea world into the 21st century with the latest in lighting technology, designed by Hoare Lee Lighting and NJO Technology and installed by Fagan Electrical and Stage Electrics.
   When the time came to remove the elaborate Starlight Express set and prepare for Bombay Dreams, Apollo Victoria owners Clear Channel Entertainment commissioned London-based architects Jaques Muir & Partners to restore the interior of the building.
   Part of Muir’s brief was to replace the original interior lighting, consisting of 3,500 GLS lamps on two separate circuits, which allowed the auditorium to be bathed in a varying blend of aquamarine and amber light.
   These lamps were costly and difficult to replace and consumed a great deal of power. Muir looked for a 21st century solution to replace them while retaining the original visual concept, and in conjunction with London-based Hoare Lee Lighting’s Dominic Merritt and Orri Petursson and NJO Technology of Cumbria, came up with the idea of using specially designed clusters of LEDs (Lighting Emitting Diodes).
   The other three players in the story are the main electrical contractor, Fagan Electrical of Liverpool; Stage Electrics, whose team, headed by Nick Ewins, carried out the complex lighting and control installation whilst production rehearsals for Bombay Dreams were in full swing; and Terry Carnes, project manager for Clear Channel.
   Says Orri Peterssun: “We experimented with various light sources including cold cathode and xenon festoons, and finally LEDs. It was clear straight away that LEDs were perfect for this, because of the flexibility they would allow for colour changing, the high light output compared to cold cathode, and the fact that the wiring would be far simpler since each LED control unit is individually addressable.”
   In all, some 88,000 LEDs are packed into 987 fixtures of two types, ‘compact’ and ‘linear’, manufactured by NJO Technology, who developed the luminaire fittings and a control device to interface the LED units with four channels of DMX512 (red, green, blue and intensity). NJO’s Annie Rawlinson comments: “987 LED fixtures, plus 44 control units, were built and installed during March. We see a great future for the technology; it’s the perfect way of providing decorative, colour-changing mood lighting.” The LEDs are expected to have a life of 25,000 hours which equates to 25 years of actual use.
   Says Stage Electrics’ project manager, Nick Ewins: “There was a requirement from English Heritage to light the auditorium in a similar way to the old system, but to achieve it using a new, unique lighting source and with modern-day health and safety standards. It was a challenging installation but the results are well worth the time and effort.”
   Stage Electrics had already installed four new 72-way ETC Sensor dimmers early in 2001, and have now added an entirely new infrastructure including new socket boxes on both fly floors in the four corners of the stage and a large dim rail patch panel in the front of house organ loft, running to the front of house lighting positions. The company also installed a Stage Electrics stage management system incorporating a Howard Eaton Soft Cue system, new sound and comms systems, low smoke and fume cables, cable trays and discreet bracketry to position the LED luminaires precisely. A large DMX address system was devised with Dave Rose and Hoare Lee, and installed by Stage Electrics using proprietary buffer boxes, along with a new circle-front lighting position and cleaners’ / emergency lighting.
   The auditorium today presents a glorious spectacle. The hidden LED clusters, divided into 186 lighting ‘zones’ arranged around architectural features, allow unlimited pre-show states, while others can be visually linked to the stage production itself. In the case of Dreams, at selected points the GrandMA Ultralite controlling the LEDs – supplied by AC Lighting – is cued from the Vari*Lite Virtuoso board that runs the stage show’s lighting. In a fireworks scene, for example, the LEDs burst into vibrant action, taking the spectacle to the back of the stalls and balcony. For architectural effect, the domed ceiling might be lit in pale blue, with parts of the stalls in amber, others in maroon and the translucent alabaster ‘stalagmite’ features picked out in turquoise – or whatever takes an LD’s fancy. Colours can be pale and muted, or vivid and intense.
   Tom Fagan of Fagan Electrical, the lead electrical contractor, comments: “The team succeeded in making it far better than the original. With the LED fixtures we’re running at five per cent of the power loading, and they avoid all the hassles and safety problems of replacing lamps in restricted roof voids and tiny spaces behind the architectural features. At the end we have a very satisfied client, and now we hope to use the technology on other projects.
   Dave Rose, technical manager at the Apollo, recalls: “When the first units were installed and turned on, everyone in the theatre just went ‘wow!’. The flexibility that this colour changing system gives us, along with the cost and maintenance savings, is absolutely unique in the theatre world.”
   Concludes Fagan: “There was a certain amount of nervousness before the first units were installed, simply because it had never been done before. When we first switched them on everyone in the theatre looked in amazement; they worked ten times better than anybody thought they would in a dramatic and unique way. From our point of view it has been a very interesting and special project, working with the latest technology in a listed building.”