Two of Croydon’s leading cultural voices Darren Randon and Shaniqua Benjamin both from Thornton Heath performed to a star-studded audience at a ceremony to mark the reopening of the multi-million pound council-led restoration of the iconic Fairfield Halls.

Dame Judi Dench, who reopened the Ashcroft Playhouse in honour of her friend and Croydon-born actress the late Dame Peggy Ashcroft, was  joined by the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who formally opened the building.

She was joined by Thornton Heath spoken word poet Darren Randon from Well Versed Ink, who performed a special commission dedicated to Peggy Ashcroft and later told The Chronicle about the magical meeting.

Darren explained how he researched  facts about its namesake, Dame Peggy  for the poem about how she went to school on Dingwall Road and defied her mother and teachers to become one of the most successful actresses in the country, earning Academy and BAFTA awards alongside honorary degrees. 

Darren said: “Peggy’s story is inspirational and I tried to draw as many parallels between hers and my life within the poem I was commissioned to write: Thread (Poem for Peggy).

“After learning about Peggy, it became an even bigger honour to perform for the Playhouse reopening, which was topped off by the presence of her good friend, Dame Judi Dench. Judi (she wouldn’t let me call her Dame), was elegant and grounded in her manner and immediately put me at ease when I was asked to give a private performance of the piece before I went on stage.

“Hearing Judi speak about her memories of Peggy and her vast experience as an actor was invaluable and rounded off an incredible adventure for me, which culminated in Judi requesting a copy of the poem, twice!”

She unveiled the People’s Picture, a giant commemorative mosaic by artist Helen Marshall, before taking to the stage in the Ashcroft Playhouse for a live Q and A with broadcaster John Hannam and British author and theatre critic Michael Billington with questions coming from local drama GCSE and A-Level students. 

During a tour of the new and restored spaces, the Mayor described the revamped Hall as ‘amazing’, praising its accessibility with a year-round programme of free entertainment, and new cultural offer which reflects the borough’s rich diversity adding:: “Culture is in the DNA of Croydon, and this fantastic transformation of Fairfield Halls is the perfect example of the exciting creative future that lies ahead for the borough. 

 The audience enjoyed performances with Shaniqua Benjamin, spoken word artist and Founder of Young People’s Insight. Shaniqua performing another special commission, A Palace of Magic and Memories, dedicated to Fairfield Halls.

Venue & Artistic Director Neil Chandler, BH Live, said: “To be custodians of this wonderful venue is a privilege and we are delighted to now begin what we are here to do, to deliver a diverse programme of arts, culture, events, entertainment and education for the people of Croydon and its wider communities.”

The refurbishment project was originally supposed to open in 2018. But during the building work a lot of asbestos was discovered which needed to be removed. This also meant the final cost for the refurbishment was £42 million instead of the expected £30 million.

At the event Councillor Oliver Lewis announced Croydon would be bidding to become London’s Borough of Culture in 2023.

The refurbishment is the first phase in the development of a new cultural quarter in Croydon’s town centre.

Spaces at the venue include the world-class Phoenix Concert Hall, Ashcroft Playhouse, Arnhem Foyer and new spaces including The Recreational, Savvy and Talawa studios and the John Whitgift Community Cube. New companies-in-residence, the UK’s premiere black theatre company, Talawa and inclusive Savvy Theatre Company, will join resident orchestra LMP, and orchestras-in-partnership the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chineke! Orchestra to offer a diverse mix of entertainment that is truly reflective of Croydon’s community.

A year-round programme of free entertainment in the foyer, funded by commercial activities in the venue such as the new business lounge, will ensure Fairfield Halls is accessible, open and inspiring to all.

*Shaniqua is pictured with council leader Tony Newman at the Fairfield launch.