Nothing better on a sunny day than going to see two unremittingly disturbing works of paranoia, obsession and fear, which is what the students of the Royal College of Music gave us last Friday, directed by Stephen Unwin and with set designs by Hannah Wolfe. 

Christian Adolph (Ben) and Beth Moxon (Ella) in <i>In the Locked Room</i>, different cast © Chris Christodoulou
Christian Adolph (Ben) and Beth Moxon (Ella) in In the Locked Room, different cast
© Chris Christodoulou

Huw Watkins’ In the Locked Room is based on a short story by Thomas Hardy, though updated by David Harsent, with pungent clarity, to the present: Ella, poetry lover, rents a house by the sea with her husband Stephen, a hard-nosed financier, who obsesses about closing “the deal”; behind a locked door, which occupies centre-stage, is the poet Ben Pascoe, with whom Ella grows obsessed, dreaming an alternative to a cold and abusive marriage, though only seeing the poet in his text and her fantasy. It’s short, at 45 minutes, but brisk scenes make for considerable dramatic momentum, and has the Gothic intensity of The Turn of the Screw, where reality is distorted by dreams and desire. Watkins’ score has a Britten-esque textures, with lots of transparent, nervy strings and moments of violent outburst.  

Katy Thomson (Susan), Beth Moxon (Ella) and Thomas Erlank (Stephen), different cast © Chris Christodoulou
Katy Thomson (Susan), Beth Moxon (Ella) and Thomas Erlank (Stephen), different cast
© Chris Christodoulou

Josephine Goddard’s Ella sang with tragic desperation, someone whose desire and fury drive her to invent Pascoe in her imagination, who becomes a dark reflection of her husband. Some of the most ingenious moments are when she sings to both Stephen and Pascoe at the same time, whose interlocking responses highlight their differences and similarities. Pascoe, sung by Christian Adolph, had a haughty charisma that made him seem as brutish as Stephen, sung by Rhys Batt, whose tenor described someone manic and domineering. It was a performance that highlighted the ambivalent meaning of the title: a locked room that is partly refuge for Ella, but also a reminder of how trapped she is. 

Peter Maxwell Davies’ best known work of music-theatre is probably The Lighthouse (1980). The composer’s musical language channels the polystylistic collage of his earlier works like St Thomas Wake, with out-of-tune pianos and eerie trombones floating over murky, faltering strings and winds, and plenty of disconcerting noises coming from the battery of percussion.

His vocal writing is more restrained than in his earlier monodrama of psychic disintegration, Eight Songs for a Mad King, though hardly without challenges and demanding stamina. It is cast in two scenes: “The Court of Enquiry”, where three navy officers recount their journey to the lighthouse and what they discovered, and “The Cry of the Beast”, where we witness the inexorable and grim mental collapse of the three lighthouse keepers, Sandy, Blazes and Arthur.

Richard Pinkstone (Sandy), James Atkinson (Blazes) and Timothy Edlin (Arthur), different cast © Chris Christodoulou
Richard Pinkstone (Sandy), James Atkinson (Blazes) and Timothy Edlin (Arthur), different cast
© Chris Christodoulou

The scenario is derived from a real historical event, when in 1900 three lighthouse keepers in the Outer Hebrides disappeared without trace. Maxwell Davies wrote the text: in his hands the story explores the volatility of the psyche when haunted by guilt and isolation. The three keepers fear “the Beast”, a shadowy presence stalking the door, but in reality a collective projection of their unconscious fears and wishes.

Richard Pinkstone (Sandy), James Atkinson (Blazes) and Timothy Edlin (Arthur) in <i>The Lighthouse</i> © Chris Christodoulou
Richard Pinkstone (Sandy), James Atkinson (Blazes) and Timothy Edlin (Arthur) in The Lighthouse
© Chris Christodoulou

All this skin-crawling Freudian stuff is swallowed with a spoonful of pitch-black comedy in three songs the keepers sing to keep themselves from killing each other. Blazes (Hugo Herman-Wilson) sang a grotesque murder ballad with ghoulish glee, in which he murders an old woman – like something out of Nick Cave – all to banjo accompaniment. Richard Pinkstone’s Sandy sang a sentimental aria (in a fulsome impersonation of some high-Romantic lyric tenor), which ended up being totally obscene. Arthur sings with fervour about the story of the Golden Calf, sending up doom-y Methodist hymn-singing with Salvation Army brass. These ghosts and fears will, it turns out, come back to haunt them at the climax of the opera, where they resolve to take on the Beast. 

The lighthouse itself represents a purgatory of endless repetition: the first part climaxes with the three officers, who uncannily double as the three lighthouse keepers, intoning “The lighthouse is now automatic”. And in the chilling denouement the officers make way for the relief keepers who begin the action all over again, verbatim, like an operatic Waiting for Godot.  

It’s a piece that requires orchestra and singers to sustain and maintain a drum-tight nervous tension, nailing the audience to the edges of their seats. The score presents huge challenges and Michael Rosewell steered the young musicians of the RCM, who played with fearlessness, through the rocks and swells. The overall effect was aided by superb lighting design, blinding the audience with the lighthouse lantern at the key climaxes, the stage backlit with a menacing red glow, unobtrusive yet atmospheric. There are two alternating casts for the show: given the quality of this performance, I’d be confident in the ability of both to harrow equally.