Box office closed, bar closed, bistro closed and toilets closed…
KEN TOWL went along to see what the Fairfield Halls experience is like these days, and with a box seat (pictured left) he managed to last longer than the Mayor of Croydon, to witness a sublime performance.
Photographs: SIMON BENTLEY
The Fairfield Halls are open for business, but in a rather half-hearted way.
There is no box office, no front-of-house beyond a trio of uniformed hired security and a small stand with leaflets advertising up-and-coming (and up-and-gone) events.
The 2022 Fairfield experience is a strange one. There are bag checks but the ticket check appears to be optional, so as long as you are bagless, you might be allowed to stroll right into the vast lobby to find a lot of people milling about aimlessly.
Of the two bars, one is closed and it does not look like it has been in use post-lockdown.
I went there on Saturday to see the combined efforts of the Croydon Philharmonic Choir, the Basingstoke Choral Society, the Choir of St Mary’s CofE Primary School, Oxted (yes, a primary, and they were wonderful!) and Docklands Sinfonia. They were all there to perform the Carl Orff masterpiece “Carmina Burana”, prefaced by a warm-up on Constance Lambert’s “Rio Grande” and a performance of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” by the orchestra alone. I took my friend Simon along because he likes a bit of Gershwin, and he’s handy with camera, too.
We had a few minutes to spare so we had a little look around.
In the toilets, Simon encountered Elton John and I found David Bowie, in the form of back-of-the-door photos, purporting to be from concerts at the Halls from back in the days that the Fairfield was an iconic rock music venue. Such days are long gone, and longer gone than the text under David Bowie would suggest. The photo shows a young Ziggy-era Bowie on stage with guitarist Mick Ronson; it attributes this to a concert in 2012. Maybe it isn’t Mick Ronson. After all, Mick Ronson died in 1993.
There are toilets on every floor of the Fairfield. More than half of them were closed.
The exclusive, corporate hospitality-style bar on the fourth floor where, on a previous visit shortly after the re-opening in 2019, you were able to get a drink and “limited snacks” for £15, was closed.
The bistro was closed.
There did not appear to be any staff apart from the three on the bar and another two serving coffees.
There was a stand in the foyer selling promotional items associated with the performance of Rush that was taking place in the Ashcroft Theatre. Rush appeared to be something to do with the Empire Windrush and Jamaican music. It turned out to be a one-night-only celebration of reggae and its development via calypso, ska and rocksteady, featuring the music of artists such as Lord Kitchener, Desmond Dekker, Millie Small, Prince Buster and, of course, Bob Marley. It sounded great.
We, meanwhile, were off to the concert hall. With no ushers, we found our seats ourselves.
We had good seats, in the middle of row Q. They must have been good seats. Sitting next to us in Q18 – in his official capacity judging by his chain of office – was the Mayor of Croydon, Sherwan Chowdhury. We were tucked in between the Mayor on one side and a couple of guys on the other.
The rows of seats, even the expensive seats, do not allow for much legroom, and Simon and I are both quite tall, so absent any ushers to ask, we moved to the cheap seats at the back – nearly all of which were empty. No one seemed to mind, particularly the group who had been sitting directly behind us in row R.
Before the performance, a representative of the charity Everyone Matters took to the stage and addressing us as “Mr Mayor, ladies and gentlemen”, said that she would be outside in the interval with a bucket to collect cash donations and would also have available bank details should anyone wish to transfer funds to the charity.
It occurred to me that, in these BLM days, the name of the charity was a little unfortunate in that it could be misinterpreted. It turned out to be a very laudable organisation indeed. Everyone Matters are dedicated to ensuring that live music is accessible to everyone, so they go into schools, care homes, wherever, and bring music into people’s lives.
The charity’s advocate spoke poignantly about the effect of music on those living with dementia, and I could not help but think that the very small print on the leaflets in the foyer stating that the concert was “In support of the charity Everyone Matters” was way too small.
I wondered if any of the ticket revenue would be “in support of the charity” or if it would all be destined for BHLive, the company that manages the Halls from its base in Bournemouth.
After the choirs and orchestra found their feet with “Rio Grande”, we were treated to the familiar, sinuous clarinet opening to “Rhapsody in Blue”. This allowed the Sinfonia to show its muscle. The melody slips easily from languorous to mischievous and back, and allows the full orchestra, bassoons and all, to let go like an unstoppable force. In short, it rocked.
There was then an intermission and we noticed that one of the boxes had not been taken and so, with ushers absent, we moved to box D on the right-hand side of the auditorium.
As the lights lowered and the returning audience stilled itself in readiness for the main event, “Carmina Burana”, I noticed that row Q was missing more than just Simon and me.
In the next seat along, where the Mayor of Croydon had been, there was… no one.
It was a charity concert, so I will be charitable. I assume that having patronised at least the first half of the concert in the concert hall, perhaps Councillor Chowdhury was now in the Ashcroft enjoying the second half of Rush and singing along to “My Boy Lollipop” or “Three Little Birds”.
Meanwhile, back in the concert hall, the hired Bechstein which had taken centre stage, literally, for “Rio Grande” and the Gershwin, had been moved to one side.
It costs more than a thousand pounds to hire a grand piano. The Fairfield Halls used to have two of them, one in the main hall, and one often to be found in the Foyer. Now the BHLive management leaves it to their performers to rent one, at significant cost. To paraphrase Lady Bracknell, “To lose one piano looks like misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness.”
The performance of “Carmina Burana” itself was a testament to the way that the combined effort and skills of composer, conductor, choristers, musicians and soloists can go to create something greater than the sum of its parts. It was, in a word, sublime.
It is a quite stunning combination of 1960s brutalism and 2020s financial and managerial ineptitude. The space is breath-taking but the windows need a clean and the bars are mostly closed, half the toilets, particularly the ones that are supposedly accessible, are “out of use”.
The expensive designer chairs that were there soon after the re-opening have gone, replaced by the odd mop leaning, unattended, in a corridor.
There is a bistro but you can’t eat in it.
There is a balcony bar on the fourth floor for the Croydon Metropolitan elite, but you can’t enjoy even “limited nibbles”, there let alone look down on hoi polloi below.
They will search your bag but they won’t check your ticket or point you to your seat.
When you go to peruse the leaflets on the way out, they gruffly tell you, “This way out!”, as if leaflet perusal is a misdemeanour.
I love the Fairfield Halls but in the way I might love a friend who has made a lot of bad decisions and is now suffering because of them.
A visit to the Fairfield Halls is to encounter the sublime and the ridiculous in the same space.
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