The Fairfield Halls had the removal men in yesterday – taking away the arts venue’s pianos.
Inside Croydon understands that the pianos – nine in total, including two grand pianos – have been returned to their makers after the venue operators, BHLive, cancelled the five-year hire agreement at short notice and with minimal compensation.
The removal, captured on video by a local resident, adds to increasing concerns for the Fairfield Halls’ immediate future. BHLive have failed to respond to Inside Croydon’s enquiries about their contingency plans for reopening after the coronavirus lockdown.
The Halls only reopened last September, after a £43million (at least) refurbishment that had seen the venue closed for more than three years. Disappointing initial tickets sales – with the venue operating at barely one-quarter capacity – led to the Fairfield’s artistic director, Neil Chandler, quitting the job in February.
BHLive has failed to say who has been hired to replace Chandler.
The theatre and entertainment industry has been hard-hit by covid-19, with the whole West End going “dark” since March, and bookings into 2021 cancelled. The National Theatre has announced that it will not be reopening for performances until next year, and the Royal Shakespeare Company yesterday cancelled all performances for the rest of 2020.
The situation for the Fairfield Halls is further complicated because Bournemouth-based exhibition and leisure centre operators BHLive manage the Croydon arts centre on behalf of its owners, the council. BHLive receives no fee, but rely on the proceeds from the shows, events and catering at the Halls for their revenue.
Today, no one from Phoenix Pianos, the makers of the instruments, was available for comment on the fate of the pianos, beyond confirming that they had been returned to the business in Sevenoaks.
“I’d be surprised if BHLive didn’t just leave the keys and walk away,” one insider told Inside Croydon this week, even before the removal of the pianos.
Other sources who have worked with BHLive have also suggested that, after enduring a torrid couple of years with the late-running refurbishment, the venue managers could be forced to terminate their deal with the council.
The refurbishment works at the Fairfield Halls, which originally were supposed to be done to a budget of £30million, were overseen by Brick by Brick, the council-owned loss-making house-builders. The company, led by “managing director” Colm Lacey, a former council staffer, had no previous experience of refurbishment work at a large arts venue, but nonetheless was appointed to do the work by the council.
There were widespread complaints about the standard of the finished work at the Halls once it did, eventually, reopen. Works were still on-going last September when the venue reopened, 15 months later than scheduled.
The removal of the two grand pianos could be a signal that Croydon Council may soon be looking for new management for the venue.
BHLive last year entered into an agreement with Phoenix Pianos, a little-known manufacturer based in Kent, for the supply of grand and upright pianos. This gave Phoenix the naming rights to the Concert Hall, and was intended to establish a Phoenix Piano Academy at the Halls.
Ollie “Oliver” Lewis, the council’s cabinet member for shit shows and butt plugs, said at the time, “We have 93,000 young people in Croydon and are proud of every single one of them. It’s fantastic that our young people will be able to learn and play on these wonderful instruments in an iconic venue, Fairfield Halls.”
Before the Halls closed for refurbishment in 2016, the venue had two prized Steinway grand pianos, each worth around £45,000, one of which had been paid for by public subscription. Mystery surrounds the fate of those two cherished instruments – it has been suggested that they were sold off at a massive discount towards meeting some of the previous management company’s deficits.
Inside Croydon surveyed all the major music venues in London to ask what kind of grand piano their concert halls are equipped with. Most said Steinway, some Bechstein. No one we spoke to had ever heard of Phoenix pianos.
Now, after Mr Shifter moved in yesterday, it seems unlikely that anyone will hear from the Phoenix pianos at the Fairfield Halls in future, either – meaning that the operators, or Lewis and the cash-strapped council, may be forced to spend close to £100,000 on equipping the venue with instruments suitable for concerts.
Staff at the Fairfield Halls have been given no indication of when they will be required back at the venue, “a similar story in most of the theatre industry”, our source said.
“Hopefully, the staff and crew’s back of house facilities will be finally be finished when they return. A large part of the back of house area was incomplete when Fairfield reopened, especially the basement, with staff not having access to a proper staff room for breaks. Typical really of the whole thing…”.
Croydon is the London Borough of Culture 2023. With an arts venue that has no pianos and which has no dedicated gallery space for art.
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