Last week I visited the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) to meet the principal, Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, and the eminent and talented people - including the wonderful Mary Hammond - who founded and run the post-graduate course in Musical Theatre - of which more soon in The Stage.
Freeman-Attwood is telling me about the Sir Jack Lyons Theatre at the back of the building which he describes as ” a bit like a 1970s conference or lecture theatre.” He’s right. I gave a talk in there once to the Association of Teachers of Singing at a weekend conference and it wasn’t great. I also saw Brundibar there when Chethams School did it as an education outreach project. The venue’s inadequacies are clear.
In short, as Freeman-Attwood says, it is no longer fit for purpose.
And that purpose — because RAM is no longer the stuffy ivory tower in which the student John Dankworth had to pretend his alto saxophone was a bassoon and John Barbirolli played (“too modern”) Ravel furtively in the loos — is further to break down the artificial, arguably snobbish, barriers between opera and musical theatre.
“We want to create an all-purpose theatre which is excellent for every form of musical drama from Purcell and Handel to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber,” says Freeman-Attwood. “That means new wings, new fly tower, extra rehearsal space, greatly improved backstage facilities and a configuration which will take it up to 340 seats.” In effect, they’re planning a full-scale, radical rebuild within the existing shell. Paul Ritchie has designed it and planning permission is granted.
All Freeman-Attwood and his colleagues have to do now is to raise £12 million to pay for it. And it will almost certainly have to be private money. There is little expectation of any money from public bodies given the current economic climate. And RAM does not have extensive cash resources itself, although it is asset-rich with a collection of priceless musical manuscripts and historic instruments including Stradivarius violins. In the principal’s office is a table which Mozart used in Vienna and Wagner’s music stand — both in respectful, everyday use.
Freeman-Attwood is cautiously optimistic that they will raise the money. “There are some very rich people out there and we are the second oldest conservatoire in the world after Paris so we’re held in high esteem.” He also points out that the new theatre at RAM in Central London, with its prestigious status, would be an attractive naming opportunity for a donor with deep pockets.
Well, I’m afraid it isn’t going to be the Susan Elkin Theatre but I hope that some wealthy donors come forward because these high flying students certainly need a top notch venue in which to showcase their work. And I can think of several seriously moneyed types whose name would sound good in front of “theatre.”
The appeal is launching in two weeks and RAM would, obviously, be pleased to hear from anyone who can help.