Could a Town Hall chamber boast by the bungling council leader have managed to reveal that the Fairfield Halls’ prestigious panto struggled to sell tickets? Oh yes it did…
Our arts correspondent, BELLA BARTOCK, reports
Tony Newman gets yet another dishonourable mention in Private Eye this week, after his bungling efforts to assure a Town Hall meeting that his council’s loss-making house-builders, Brick by Brick, managing to go millions over-budget over the refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls was in some way a good thing.
“Distinctly unforthcoming” is Lord Gnome’s correspondent’s description of the Labour council leader’s failure to nail whether the refurbishment project has in fact cost £60million – twice its original budget.
After four re-opening dates – including one royal gala concert – were cancelled, the Halls only re-opened in September last year, 15 months late, and with the cost of the project having risen, we were told then, to a whopping £41million.
In last week’s full council meeting, as first reported by Inside Croydon, Newman refused to deny the costs for the project had continued to soar out of control, preferring his usual trope of criticising those who hold him to scrutiny by deflecting their questions and suggesting that they are in some manner “talking down” Croydon. We should all be “celebrating” the re-opening of the Fairfield Halls, according to Newman.
“But what is there to celebrate?” the Eye‘s noted arts correspondent, Lunchtime O’Boulez, asks.
“The Halls’ refurbishment is still unfinished. Planned improvements to backstage access have been abandoned. The shabby 1960s auditorium seats are still in place. And the underground car park, meant to be converted into a gallery, is still a car park. A sorry story.”
One piece of good news to emerge yesterday was that the first new seating for almost 60 years has finally been installed in the Ashcroft Theatre – a mere six months after it was re-opened, at a time when Newman claimed all the work had been done. The choice of a lighter shade of pale grey for the upholstery, however, maybe the latest triumph of style over substance, and may ensure the public venue is saddled with cleaning bills for years to come.
According to Newman on Twitter, this is all part of “continuing with our ongoing planned investment in this iconic building” – suggesting that there’s even more budget-busting spending still to come, but he’s just not bothered to mention it in public council meetings at which he is supposed to be accountable.
Patrons attending the 1,500-seater Concert Hall will have to wait even longer to enjoy their entertainment in comfort, however.
Newman, of course, is not good with detail, or numbers, as he demonstrated so crassly in December when he tried to claim the re-opened Halls’ TripAdvisor rating of 3.5 (out of five), was somehow registering on his phone as 4.5.
Last week, despite the “iconic” nature of the venue and the large cost to the council of the refurbishment project, Newman claimed ignorance when asked about the price tag. Hardly a council leader on top of his brief…
And inadvertently, Newman may also have revealed that the Fairfield’s first pantomime for four years – usually the venue’s biggest money-spinner of the year – barely managed to sell half its available seats.
According to Newman, a “fantastic 25,000 people… attended the pantomime over Christmas”.
The 2019-2020 Fairfield Halls pantomime was staged in the Concert Hall, rather than the more conventional theatre space of the Ashcroft, a punchy decision by the Halls’ management to maximise ticket sales over the seasonal run from December 10 to January 5.
According to the production company, Imagine Theatre, the choice of venue created a number of expensive “challenges” – they meant problems – for the staging of Cinderella.
“When we were offered the chance to work with Neil Chandler and the team at BHLive to deliver pantomime at the newly renovated Fairfield Halls we were cautious at first,” according to the company’s managing director, Steve Boden.
“Delivering a large-scale pantomime into a 1,500-seat concert platform with little theatrical infrastructure would be challenging to say the least…
“We’ve had to consider grid loading for the venue’s new motors, sight lines for the screens, positions for the band, all without absolute clarity of what would eventually be delivered.
“There’s not much space in the Phoenix Concert Hall… Trucked items and large set pieces are difficult to accommodate when you have no wing space or scene dock, so let’s not have any. As everything must be brought into the venue through a goods lift on the second floor, conventional scenery is not possible.”
It does not take much reading between the lines of the production company’s cheerily positive blog post to get a feel that all was not ideal with the choice of the Concert Hall venue. The big gamble was that having TV stars such as comedian Tim Vine and some bloke who had done Strictly would draw in the Croydon public, starved of panto for four years.
But a simple check of the performance dates, allowing for six evening performances each week plus a couple of matinees, suggests that there could have been more than 45,000 tickets available for the four-week run.
Certainly, anecdotal accounts from Inside Croydon readers support the suggestion that ticket sales were lower than might have been hoped. “We went in the last week,” one reader said. “The place seemed to be barely one-third full. It affected the atmosphere. I felt sorry for the performers.”
Another reader told us, “It was a terrific show. But the venue did not feel right. The place was about half full when we took the family. It was a shame really.”
Inside Croydon approached the Imagine Theatre company to comment on their expected and achieved tickets sales for their Fairfield Halls pantomime. They declined to comment.
If, for once, Newman can be relied upon to get his numbers right, then that 25,000 is a figure to be more concerned about than celebrated, as it means that the venue has likely taken another significant financial hit.
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It really does look like chaos reigns at Fairfield. And if the rumoured cost is now £60m imagine what it will be by the summer!
And other than the usual touring commercial shows (plus ca change), still no dedicated theatre programme (the pathetic argument for not supporting the wonderful Warehouse Theatre was that it could all be done better in the Fairfield complex!) – six months after opening the Studio has 8 performances of a show that Talawa has done before, and no published future programme in Croydon. But they do have a new show in Finsbury Park.
It is impossible to arrange a proper theatre programme at the new theatre. Really, what are you thinking of? Doing that would risk dirtying the new grey seating and we wouldn’t want that, would we? We do need a proper theatre programme though: so many of the touring acts and shows that turn up are, as dracardweigh says, touring commercial shows. That applies to Fairfield as well and often you can see the touring fatigue.