A night at the comic opera: from sublime to the ridiculous

Pride of place: seating arrangements at the Fairfield are a little fluid

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.

Sad song: which Elton John is unlikely to perform at the Fairfield any time soon

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.

No Rush: the production looked fun, but was for one night only

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.

Inconvenient convenience: half the Fairfield’s toilets are closed

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.

Closed: it didn’t look as if this bar had been used since lockdown ended

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.”

Sublime: the performances were a testament to the combined efforts of musicians, choristers and soloists

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.

So go to the Fairfield Halls when you can. After all, you have paid £67.5million for it. 

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.

Read more: 160 voices sing Verdi’s Requiem at Croydon’s People’s Palace: with Elton John in the toilets and ‘limited nibbles’ for £15

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in Art, Ashcroft Theatre, BH Live, Croydon Philharmonic Choir, Fairfield Halls, Ken Towl, Music and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A night at the comic opera: from sublime to the ridiculous

  1. David Simons says:

    Well done BH Live, as promised you have managed to make our arts centre with so much promise and potential operate like your Bournemouth venues. Bravo! Your board must be proud of you dear CEO of leisure centres. Croydon Council must also be proud of the decision to award you the contract. Enough said.

  2. John Harvey says:

    Let’s hand the bar over to Wetherspoon’s

  3. Ross Stevens says:

    For a newly refurbished metropolitan arts centre that does seem ridiculous. And despite a multi million pound refurb (being looked at by Met Police) you were sitting on the same tired old red upholstery kids were peeing on in the early nineties.

    Our Council CEO should make a public statement about this – if anyone knows where she is hiding. Perhaps if she had to publicly collect he way too large salary check from town hall reception every month in a red envelope she might start to engage more??

  4. Pete Jenkins says:

    Thank you, Ken, for the review of the “comic opera”. If the situation wasn’t so serious it might be funny. BHLive has done the town absolutely no favours.

    Surely they are breaking the law on their “entertainment” and “health & safety” licences – if of course they hold such licences?

    To have such few stewards/attendants is a big worry. What if there was a fire or any type of incident in the building? Where are the staff to help, let alone check the tickets and show you to the seats? In the days before the Council decided to take back control, we would be greeted by a member of the Corps of Stewards with a ticket check and some friendly words. There would be ticket selling (from 10am) and collection points and food and drink outlets. What a shambles this has become.

    It would seem, judging by one of Simon’s photos, that the attendance may have been low, so the publicity and promotion of this event and apparently many others, leaves a lot to be desired. Visiting the Croydon area, one doesn’t see any form of awareness that Fairfield even exists, let alone what is on. Apart from when passing by, the interior lights are fully on most nights, probably when there is nothing on. Imagine the electricity bills generated these days.

    In the good old days, we did see David Bowie on 24 June 1974 and Elton John on 9 May 1976 – on stage and not behind the toilet doors.

    It would probably be best if BHLive left town sooner rather than later, before more damage is done, otherwise we could soon be going into Fairfield Wetherspoons for those pints of Harvey’s.

  5. I suppose its a fair reflection on the parlous state to which Newman and His Band of Numpties have reduced the borough that a discussion of the fate and future of what was once a respected and loved arts venue has ended up as a discussion as to which would be the best beer to serve if the bars in the eerie deserted space were ever to reopen regularly.

  6. Lewis White says:

    With regard to Pete Jenkins’ comment above, I agree with him about public awareness and the absence of publicity.

    Whilst the world has to a degree migrated from paper media to online, nothing beats a publicity poster to get the message over that something is happening. Otherwise there would be no posters on the underground and on billboards

    If you went past the Fairfield any time up to the refurbishment, you would have seen giant posters outside, advertising the acts on and coming soon.

    Without wishing to suggest something that would add to global warming, now that we have LED’s, might it be possible to have a Piccadily Circus type of display outside, maybe on the building or in the form of a free -standing column ?

    The passer-by by car or bus would be forgiven for thinking “I wonder what that building is ?” or entirely failing to notice it. Whilst a few years ago, an overworked phrase was “raising the profile”, the current public face of the Fairfield as presented to the passer-by is so self-effacing as to be invisible or at least, inscrutable. Yet, it is a big building with , as Ken says, lots of lighting.

    Currently, the Halls are marooned in a giant and bleak sea of tarmac, marked out with bikelanes which seem to come from and go, no-where, and a few pathetic planters.

    The forecourt area was the subject of design proposals as part of the revamp (and significant 1/4 reduction in size) of the adjacent “Fair Field” (aka College Green aka Fairfield Halls Open Space)

    The ideas shown by the architects included an enormous paving pattern like a giant carpet laid out in front of the Halls (I rather liked it) , plus a weird lift-stairwell twin-horned structure reminiscent of an Indiana Jones Temple, which re-created the awkward spaces (so prone to a.s.b safety and urination issues) of the Park Lane subways (which I did not).

    The re-design of the Fair Field Open Space is of very great importance to the Halls, and for the many residents of the new high-rise blocks nearby, which will have little or no green open space.

    When the detailed proposals are unveiled , I hope that the designers will have added some advertising feature to draw attention to the halls, as well as delivering a really good open space that will give the new residents usable and beautiful greening as well as the excellent fountain jets area which- if designed well– would give the local children an inner Croydon “beach”.

    The problem of the outline designs shown in the public consultation that was an early victim of Covid was that — among good ideas — there was a lot that was gimicky, that would look dated within a few years, and there were some ideas with such serious in-built design conflicts and flaws that they would not work in the real world, and would lead to failure in just a few months.

    Bizarrely, the council had opted to place the design in the hands of architects without a track record of designing public parks. Potentially, there could be a beneficial design synergy between the Halls and the Open space, with scope for outdoor performance, if the design were right, but I have been looking in vain for any recent updates on the detailed design in the Council website.

    Again, where is the publicity ?

    Covid, and the Council financial and Brick by Brick crises are all players in this design saga.

    I hope that we end up with a renewed (if sadly, a much smaller open space) that will deliver worthwhile recreational benefits and usable greening — and fun– to bring people in to enjoy the cultural offer of the Fairfield Hall as well as the open space itself.

    But I have worries.

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