In some ways, Hailsham is its own little island. Roads go past it rather than through it, families go back generations, and for those who live in the town there is a tangible sense of community.
It sometimes earns less flattering publicity, but Hailsham is full of busy community groups, active sports clubs, some inspirational schools, and simply people who love the town. And, right in the centre, it has the Pavilion.
Hailsham Pavilion dates from 1921, when it opened as a Picture Palace, and thrived until the mid-1960s, then surviving as a bingo hall before falling into receivership in 1985. Empty and unloved for some years, the Pavilion was in a pretty dreadful state. But Wealden District Council rescued it and leased it in February 2000 to the Friends of Hailsham Pavilion.
Nowadays membership runs to over 900 local people, including 120 active volunteers. There are only six paid employees, mainly part-time, and otherwise the whole show is run for love.
I’ve turned up to see the Pavilion’s New Year panto, Treasure Island, and management committee stalwart Brian Simmonds shows me round with quiet pride. “It’s an absolute jewel of a building, and it deserves every moment of the time and work that the Friends spend on it. When you think that at one stage it was derelict and didn’t even have a proper roof, the renovation was miraculous.
“We have seating for 203, plus wheelchair spaces, and with a varied programme of new movies and live gigs, we often have full houses.” Recent acts include Toyah Wilcox and Paul Jones, with Barbara Dickson due soon: not a bad schedule for a quiet market town. “We are quite a focal point in the town, and I think the people of Hailsham have a real affection for the Pavilion.”
The performance is a sell-out, and most of the cheerfully expectant audience seem to know each other. Just in front of me, an excited trio of sisters – Emily, Katie and Rhianna – have come with the grandparents from far-off Pevensey Bay, are glued to the action, booing and cheering at all the right moments.
The show itself is terrific. That modest, retiring chap Douglas Morgan – yes, the Devonshire Park lighting director – is having his moment in the spotlight as a magnificently dressed Dame, milking every line. Among an excellent cast, Dave Williams is an agile Long John Silver, Lauren Hollands sings gorgeously as Captain Corker’un, and Rob Taylor and Mike Cotton improvise brilliantly as comic duo Brass and Knuckles. Fairy Godmother Diane Morris is gloriously incompetent, while across the stage from her, busy with her knitting, sits a life-sized Polly Parrot (Sandra Pink). And enjoying the beach life on Treasure Island itself, a suave Pete Bowers is more Noel Coward than Robinson Crusoe.
It adds up to a smashing show, and director Ian Ward – an incomer all the way from Heathfield – is pleased. Teamwork, tradition and dedication: Hailsham Pavilion is thriving on it.