A London concert hall, one-quarter full

A London concert hall, one-quarter full


norman lebrecht

February 25, 2020

A report from a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert at crisis-ridden Fairfield Hall, Croydon:

Went to the Fairfield last night to hear a wonderful concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The music was wonderful, as it should be from a really world class orchestra. That was the only pleasant thing about the whole experience. We arrived early because of the difficulty in finding parking and had hoped to have a snack before the concert started. The only place open was the so called servery. This had on offer two open (probably contravening health and safety regulations) trays of pizza like breads, four slices of each on two trays and a few dismal, white bread, due to expire today sandwiches, no trays, no choice. The counter was staffed by a charming but highly overworked young lady who was, of course, under great pressure as the starting time approached.

The hall was about half full and it was very evident that at least 50% the audience were there on complimentary tickets. It was well and truly papered. The seats were, of course, as uncomfortable as they were 40 years ago and the view from the stalls of the tatty, dull, dark choir seats was truly dispiriting. It make me sad to have to repeat the little phrase that Obama used to such effect about lipstick and pigs….but that is just what it felt like it. I felt like I was on a sinking ship, rudderless, direction free and foundering. It is going to take a marketing and booking genius to stop the place going under….and I fear we may well see temporary periods of closure as bookings dry up. Wrestling may save it for a while …….but that may be our only real contribution as the centre of culture in couple of years time. At the moment there’s more culture in a tub (small) of Aldi yogurt than there is in Croydon. And that whoosh you have just heard is the sound of £42 million going down the pan.

Arno Rabinowitz


  • Minutewaltz says:

    ‘It was well and truly papered.’

    What does that sentence mean?

    • Suzanne says:

      “Papering” refers to giving out tickets in large quantities so that performing artists don’t come on stage to an empty hall.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    Have a snack somewhere else in future

  • Una says:

    I sang oratorio in there as a soloist many times, and it is so convenient to get to from Victoria or London Bridge, with the amazing train service and the tram in the town itself across south London to Wimbledon. Down the years the Hall has diversified and so it should. But I suppose the way Croydon town has gone – in one way consumed into London rather than Surrey as it used to be in old money, and a recognised area of social deprivation, makes the hall vulnerable in what has become a bit of a soulless town. It is a great shame but if it’s not being used, then that has to be addressed by people far more qualified than me.

    • SVM says:

      The excellent public transport links beg the question of why the Fairfield spent so much money on adding/improving its on-site car parking. Perhaps, the management should consider including a free public-transport ticket in the price of a concert ticket (a practice already widespread in Germany). That might encourage more people to use the bus/tram/train to get to/from the Halls.

      • Christopher Clift says:

        Patrons DO go to concert venues from ALL directions, and in the case of Fairfield Halls, there may well be good transport from central and south London, but these do not necessarily occur from the wider south of England area – Brighton, south Kent, East Hampshire, so motor vehicles have to be the choice for many.

  • Garry Humphreys says:

    Papering is a long-established term for giving away lots of free tickets to make the hall/theatre look well-attended – papering over the gaps in the audience – an allusion to covering a bare wall by hanging wallpaper, I suppose. Googling reveals several interesting articles on the subject, such as this one: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/oct/31/secrets-of-the-seat-fillers-london-free-theatre-tickets

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    Arno Rabinowitz is a retired gentleman in Croydon who is often in the local news, for example below

  • Will says:

    Having had a site visit of the venue recently I’d describe it as far from tatty – it was looking sparkling. There are clearly issues with its management, programming etc, but its looking better than it has done for a very long time indeed and properly run will be a fantastic resource for Croydon.

  • Will Duffay says:

    I think this issue is bigger than just the Fairfield Hall programming and marketing strategy. I’ve been to concerts by the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall which have been barely half full. The problem is a) the gradual decline of classical music because of the erosion of music education and the decline of tv and print media coverage, and b) the changing demographics of areas like Croydon. When the hall was built presumably the idea was for people to drive in to an evening’s concert from the surrounding middle-class area, but that’s no longer possible or something that the residents want to do.

    • SVM says:

      The harsh reality is that, even in a conurbation such as London, putting on a classical concert in a hall with a capacity in the thousands is a setup for failure (in financial terms and in terms of “bums on seats”), unless the concert involves one or more superstars. The obvious solution is, rather than having a small number of concerts in large halls, to have lots of concerts but in small/medium halls (those with a capacity in the tens or hundreds) with reasonable hire charges.

      Unfortunately, the classical-music establishment, rather than campaigning for reasonable hire charges and for other reforms that would benefit *all* professional musicians and promoters, is lining up behind white-elephant vanity projects that benefit only a select few superstars such as Simon Rattle.

  • V.Lind says:

    It sounds as if it is a rather unpleasant place to go for an evening out — what on earth did they spend that £42.6 million ON?

    I realise the acoustics are the most important thing, but still, when you pay a lot for tickets (ideally), dress up and plan an evening of music in a concert hall, you expect a little of aesthetics and comfort from the hall. Clean, at least, and decent seating.

    Judging from the provided link to that councillor, Croydon has to get its act together to get anything done satisfactorily.

    Seems a pity — I found the arguments for it last week very interesting and hoped for the best.

  • Freelance Muso says:

    Fairfield was closed for over two years, a lot of local residents are unaware it has reopened. The local council are totally disinterested in the venue. The large public car park is currently closed so there is no parking available until April when it is due to reopen. £42+ million was spent – a large part on the removal of asbestos but not much evidence of improvement anywhere else. Rumour has it that councillors will have benefitted somewhere along the line…..

  • Petros Linardos says:

    How are the acoustics at Fairfield Hal? The reviewer commented on the sight lines. I believe concert halls are primarily for listening to music.

  • Dragonetti says:

    Unfortunately we are living in interesting times. The Fairfield was always a decent enough gig from an acoustic point of view but as others have mentioned, it’s in Croydon. Now I’m sure that if you live there then you’ll know all the sweet spots round about. However if you don’t then there’s no polite way to put it except to say that it’s a bit lacking in places the average punter will want to visit.
    Past glories when it was surrounded by a ready made middle class audience are gone. Late night public transport is not going to appeal, parking is dire, eating out is patchy. That’s the long and the short of it.
    I don’t know what the answer is and I wish I did but I do know that this is a huge problem that is going to take some serious marketing talent to put right.

  • Herbert Glass says:

    What was the program? Was there a conductor?
    Pig and lipstick was Sarah Palin’s expression, not Obama’s.
    And the yogurt line is not only tired, but the exclusive property (albeit dated) of my hometown, i.e., what’s the difference between yogurt and Los Angeles? Yogurt’s got culture.

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    It was a Glinka overture, Brahms Double Cto with soloists from the orch and Tchaik 5

  • Walter says:

    Does anyone know how well the Phoenix pianos are going down? I can imagine a lot of soloists asking for a Steinway/Fazoli/Yamaha. Who is going to risk turning up to play an unknown brand?

    • Marco says:

      I’ve found the Phoenix pianos are fantastic. There is also a Phoenix concert grand in the Opus Theatre in Hastings, which has an unbelievable sound.