The Croydon Philharmonic Choir made its long-awaited return to the refurbished Fairfield Halls last night. And so, too, did KEN TOWL
When a Croydon re-opening commands the presence of the Mayor of London himself, you know something big is happening.
Sadiq Khan was the star guest at the overdue Fairfield Halls ceremony last month and its doors are now open to the public after more than three years and £41million (as opposed to the two years and £30 million originally envisaged) of renovations.
It had been a rather sad affair in recent years, a shadow of its former glory, home to little more than right-wing comedians, on tour to pay off their maintenance bills, and tribute bands. I confess to having only been once during the slightly-more-than-a-decade that I have lived in Croydon, and that was to see the Bootleg Beatles (on March 11, 2009, it turns out, according to the internet). I have not been to see any right-wing comedians.
Through the good offices of Inside Croydon, I managed to procure two tickets to Verdi’s Requiem performed by the massed voices of the Croydon Philharmonic Choir and the London Mozart Players, the house band, as it were, of the Fairfield’s 1,800-seat concert hall. I invited Ashley along, too. She is good company at the best of times but she also knows a bit about architecture and, furthermore, works for a cultural venue down on the coast built in the Modernist style of the 1930s.
I told Ashley about the Fairfield’s sad past, about the tribute bands, and I wondered if the Fairfield Halls will once again become the prestige music venue it once was, when the likes of The Beatles, The Who, Queen and Status Quo played there.
A look at the What’s On section of the Fairfield Halls website seems to confirm this.
The big names in popular music this season are a Buddy Holly tribute and an Elvis tribute in November, a Whitney Houston tribute in December and an Elton John tribute in March, all in the smaller (800-seat) Ashcroft Theatre. It will have to do better than this, given its stated aspiration to be a “Southbank for Croydon”. Brutalist architecture alone is not enough.
That said, you can find the real Elton John in the toilets at the back of the Arnhem Foyer.
Life-size photographs of past performers look down at you in the cubicles from the backs of the doors. Ashley came back from the toilets in a state of excitement.
“Yehudi Menuhin was on the back of the toilet door. Luckily, he was playing so intensely, he had his eyes closed. Cilla Black had the good grace to avert her gaze but Ray Davies looks straight at you. Not what you want when you are sitting there with your underwear round your ankles.”
There will be more adventurous music in the appallingly named “The Recreational”, a new 750-capacity “gig space”. Grandmaster Flash (the real one, not a tribute), will be playing “White Lines” and his other hits there on December 7. Presumably, Mr Flash just needs a microphone and a turntable to do his stuff. Probably best to get a ticket fairly quickly if you are interested. Get The Message?
Another interesting development is the newly resident Talawa Theatre Company, London’s leading black company, who have moved into office space and will use a 200-seat studio theatre. Let’s hope we see more from them than the mere two performances of A Christmas Carol, both on December 14, that the Fairfield Halls’ programme mentions. The Halls also houses the inclusive community-based Savvy Theatre.
When you enter the Fairfield Halls from the front, you find yourself in what they are now calling the Arnhem Foyer, a huge atrium with a mezzanine that impresses due to its scale and clean lines of wood and metal. This, too, will be a venue, apparently specialising in veteran Radio4 presenters (John Humphrys on October 31, Jenni Murray on November 28).
There is currently an exhibition of photographs chronicling the Windrush Generation which provides a fascinating insight into the lives of a generation who had to negotiate their way into acceptability and, as has become apparent very recently, are still having to do so. It will be there till January 12; well worth popping in for this alone.
I went along to the venue to see it without the crowds. It is a strangely forbidding yet seductive place.
On one hand it has a palpable majesty to it, an aura of real-life “people’s palace” and yet, at the same time, it is unfinished and surrounded by construction workers putting the finishing touches to the Ashcroft Theatre on the north side and a guy in a crane doing something to the tops of the high, flat walls of the south.
When you enter, a bunch of security guards stop you and ask if you have a ticket, then just say “OK” when you say you are visiting. There is quite a security presence in the foyer.
Not so much, fortunately, in the rest of the building, where I was given free rein to wander.
The interior is impressive. There is something timeless and democratic about brutalism. It is perhaps the opposite of the gold-tap syndrome so beloved of dictators around the world, that desperate (and vain, in both senses of the word) use of architecture and design to emphasise the power of the occupant.
These long corridors, these open spaces, these huge plates of glass and concrete belong to the many, not the few. The utilitarian splendour of the 1960s, a time of social upheaval when we gave up tugging our forelocks and embraced liberation and The Beatles, has been rejuvenated at the Fairfield Halls.
A caveat, here.
The fourth floor VIP members’ lounge, with its plush Chesterfield sofas, seems a world away from the democratic style of the halls. It has a private balcony with views across to the Clocktower. You can opt to pay £15 to gain entry. This includes a “free” drink and, a helpful receptionist explained, “limited nibbles”. This is brutalist Utopia for the few, not the many.
Ashley and I made do with a 330cl can of cloudy citrusy IPA and a small glass of Rioja on the mezzanine – a bargain at a little less than a tenner, and the bar staff were charming.
We were very impressed by the building.
You could imagine that it would have been the height of glamour in 1962, when it was opened originally. Huge care has gone into the restoration, and the furnishings have been well-chosen to blend in with the mid-20th century aesthetic of the venue. We couldn’t help noticing, however, that many of the seats in the concert hall are threadbare.
It seems a shame and is all the more noticeable given the wonderful appearance of everything else.
But what of the concert, Verdi’s powerful Requiem, with its “Dies Irae” centrepiece?
Imagine 160 voices intoning, “The day of wrath shall consume the world to dust”, while strident brass instruments make sounds like the end of the world.
My limited powers of description cannot do it justice. The acoustics are incredible. All I can say is – go!
It is probably as good a place as any to hear classical music and it is on our doorstep.
And if classical music isn’t your bag, you will probably find something more to your taste in the Savvy or the Talawa or the Ashcroft or the Recreational. And if not, there’s always the opportunity for a citrusy IPA on the mezzanine.
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