On Wednesday evening, just a little over 24 hours after the Oldham Coliseum’s devastating announcement, my family and I went to the Opera House in Manchester. Mamma Mia! was playing. I, as I always do, bought a programme to gain insight into the cast that night. I flicked through the pages and began reading who was taking to the stage, absent-mindedly reading their previous theatre credits. Sure enough, Sara Poyzer, who played Donna Sheridan, was among the many who have trodden the boards of Oldham Coliseum. A lady who drew an audible gasp from theatre goers for her outstanding performance of The Winner Takes It All, once entertained on the Coliseum stage. Watching her perform was a stark reminder of the talent that we will no longer get to welcome to our town, the talent we will no longer get to nurture and give opportunity to.
Last year, I saw several shows at the Coliseum, but the one that really touched my heart was a play called ‘We Should Definitely Have More Dancing’. Either side of me were students from Serbia and Bosnia and on the row in front, Julie Hesmondhalgh supporting her friend Darcy and husband and writer, Ian Kershaw. We sat as Clara Darcy retold her astonishing real-life story alongside her friends in what was an emotive and powerful world premiere. “Ian Kershaw, my co-writer who’s written loads of things over the years that have been staged at the Coliseum, approached me and asked if I’d be interested in writing about this. He was a great mentor and support for me. The hope was that we would get it produced somewhere but that was never certain. We did a shared reading online during Covid with about seven or eight venues and the Coliseum were the only ones to come back to us,” Darcy recounts.
It was the first step in Darcy being able to have her voice heard and get her story out there. “For them to put their faith and trust, not only in me as a performer, but me as a brand new sparkling writer, I’ll be forever grateful. They wanted to take this risk on a brand new writer, on a difficult subject matter and on what was not going to be easy viewing.” It was an emotional journey for Darcy as they took it on tour, all the way to the Edinburgh Fringe but everyone at the Coliseum was supportive of her, from the office staff to the technicians. “We took it on tour to Scarborough and Keswick up to Edinburgh and we had great audiences. But it still had the best response in Oldham. And I think that’s because people in Oldham are just so willing to open their hearts to anything they watch.”
Darcy’s play was not the first time she had graced the Coliseum stage though, her very first job after she left acting school was a production of ‘Return to the Forbidden Planet’ in 2007. “It was a brilliant actor-muso job and we had a brilliant cast. What’s great about the Coliseum is they have a real commitment to employing North West-based actors. A lot of other theatres in the region tend to favour London actors but the Coliseum, I think they try and have like a remit of at least 75% of their actors who are Northern. I remember chatting to my family afterwards and my mum and sister said that just before I came on stage they were holding each other’s hands with bare, white knuckles because they were so nervous for me. It was a huge moment in my career.”
She returned to the theatre several times as both a performer and a fan, “Their shows are always of such a high standard it’s hard to pinpoint a favourite that I’ve seen there. I suspect that people outside of the North West don’t know the quality, it’s a small provincial theatre that outsiders might class as in the sticks, but everything I’ve seen there is brilliant. Their pantos are exceptional, they’re at the height of what panto should be every year.” She has appeared in several shows there that she is really proud of too: Brassed Off and Chicago. “It’s almost like the show Brassed Off is made for Oldham, that tight-knit community. Another one of my favourites was an acting musician production of Chicago which broke all kinds of barriers. It was the first time that Chicago had been done outside of the West End, it was a whole new staging, new design so it was really original.”
Darcy believes that the levelling-up schemes should be aimed at places like Oldham. “Ian tells of a really good interview a few years back where locals were asked if they go to the theatre and they said no and they rephrased the question, do you go to the Coliseum and the answer was yes. A lot of people in the community think of theatre as very highbrow whereas the Coliseum is their building, a safe space where they can watch things without being judged. When the government talks of levelling up, it should be aimed at Oldham, a massively underprivileged area. Children go to the Coliseum every year to the panto on a school trip, that’s their first experience of going to a theatre because people don’t have the extra money to take their children to see the big musicals in Manchester. Its outreach programs it delivers – I think they call it full circle, which is like an elders group, some of that age group don’t see an awful lot of people. They try to reach every aspect of their community more than any other theatre does in the country.”
Comedy duo Cannon and Ball met in Oldham whilst working as welders and after they shot to fame in the mid-70s, the duo often took to the stage at Oldham Coliseum as part of their tours. Cannon told The Meteor of his reaction to the sad news about the theatre’s future, “I saw the news for Oldham Coliseum losing funding for this year, it’s devastating. I was born and raised in Oldham so it means even more. Me and Bobby played there a couple of times as well. I really hope they can find some way to get it funded again and back up and running, as it means a lot to everyone in Oldham and the theatre community.”
It’s not just theatre stars and comedians who have begun their careers at Oldham Coliseum, some of the UK’s finest TV shows have relied on stars who began their acting training at Oldham Coliseum. The theatre is indirectly woven into the fabric of Britain’s longest running soap, Coronation Street. Since its very first episode up to now, there has been an actor or actress starring who began their career at Oldham Coliseum, usually through the Oldham Theatre Workshop, a youth theatre organisation managed by Oldham Council. Managing Director of Continuing Drama, ITV Studios/Head of ITV in the North, John Whiston told The Meteor, “Everyone at Coronation Street was dismayed to hear about the closure of the Coliseum. It’s one of those theatres which has quietly and without fuss produced truly great work and honed the talents of many people who have gone on to work for the Street, both in front of the camera and behind it. We rely on their tireless grassroots work and will be much the worse for the lack of it.”
From Pat Phoenix to Anne Kirkbride, Barbara Knox to William Roache, all had trodden those boards countless times. Just a few years ago, Sue Devaney returned to the stage as she played a pantomime villain, years after making her debut as a child actress on that same stage. Jane Danson, who is famed for her role as Leanne in Coronation Street, a role which she first took in 1997, was just ten years old when she performed at the Coliseum with Oldham Theatre Workshop, and tells me it will always hold a special place in her heart. “We did numerous productions there, and it was my first ever sort of professional job really on the stage,” she reflects, a smile on her face as she recalls those happy memories but a sadness in her eyes due to the reason she is retelling them.
Her first production at that tender age was Alice, based on Alice in Wonderland, and Danson was a part of the chorus. “It was life-changing for many of us, but just such a wonderful experience. It was a safe space, it was somewhere for young people to be, to learn and to nurture any talent that they might have had. It just seems so sad that that opportunity won’t be there, especially for the people of Oldham. As a young child actor, it always felt like it was out of your reach, everything was in London. All the big stage schools that did all that kind of thing but the Coliseum, along with Oldham Theatre Workshop, really presented an opportunity for young people. We weren’t hanging around on the streets.”
The skills Danson learnt on that stage, she still carries with her in her role as Leanne on Coronation Street. “The way we work on Coronation Street is very similar to the rep theatre, you learn a few plays at once very quickly. Then you go on and perform one while you’re rehearsing another in the day, and a lot of our older actors such as Barbara Knox, had that experience at the Coliseum. The foundations of acting – discipline, rehearsal and turning up on time, knowing your lines – the Coliseum was the best training ground.”
The words of advice she received from the founder of Oldham Theatre Workshop, she still carries with her. “I always remember David Johnson would always instil in us that people were paying to come and see us perform so it had to be good… Just the logistics of a day to day, how things change and edit, we get amendments all the time and obviously that happens in theatre, things change at the last minute or someone’s ill and someone else has to step in – the show must go on. We learnt that from the theatre and I think I can speak on behalf of all the cast that it has stood us all in good stead for what we didn’t know was to come later on in our careers.” One of her proudest moments in her career was starring in the live episode celebrating Corrie’s 50th anniversary and she pulled upon those skills that life at the theatre taught her. “It was like doing a play and it was almost like going back to your roots. When you’ve not done a play for a while it’s quite intimidating. So even though it was really nerve-wracking, I think that’s the closest I came to being back on stage.”
Danson recalls one of her happiest memories at Oldham Coliseum where an array of Oldham Theatre Workshop alumni returned, taking to the stage in a star-studded celebration. “We did a show called 25 years of Oldham Theatre Workshop at the Coliseum and all the actors who’d gone on to have greater success came back and stood on that stage together. The bottom line is, it’s been there for such a long time – 135 years – it would be a huge loss for the whole industry.”
Danson pointed out the knock-on effect its closure will have on the rest of the community. “Not only were we doing something that we loved, we were entertaining people – it brought in the community, which then helped the restaurants and the pubs. So it’s the whole infrastructure as well, it’s not just the theatre.”
Former Coronation Street actress Sarah Lancashire currently has the nation on tenterhooks due to her outstanding performance as Catherine Cawood in Sally Wainwright’s gripping drama Happy Valley. She too honed her craft at the Coliseum. Siobhan Finneran, another actress applauded for her portrayal of Lancashire’s on-screen sister, also hails from Oldham and was inspired by the shows that the Coliseum put on in her youth. With the series finale just days away, how can it be that their local theatre, the company that first developed their acting skills, can close its doors for good?
This devastating news derived from the Coliseum losing Arts Council funding, but the local council has received funding from the Arts Council that is up to them to distribute accordingly. Darcy would like to see them step in to save the Coliseum. “Oldham Council need to designate quite a lot of that money back to the Coliseum, in order for them to keep going either within that building or within a temporary place, possibly just to keep doing what they’ve been doing. The fear is that the money that’s been given to the council will be dispersed into lots of different smaller groups, which will be great and help a lot of people out. But as no one leading institution is taking control of that after a while, it’ll kind of dissipate. There will be no arts hub within Oldham and within four or five years there will be nothing locally for people to go to.”
Although there is talk that a new theatre will be built, it’s something that has been in the pipeline for several years and has yet to come to fruition. However, a new theatre, whenever it happens, will not hold the same heart for Darcy that the Coliseum has. “It’s survived two World Wars, it’s a building with such heart, such energy and history. The legacy of names that have performed there from Stan Laurel to Charlie Chaplin. It’d be great if these plans went ahead but in the interim, all the things that town is losing out on, those people that are losing jobs, the North West artists who are losing work, the kids that are losing out on that youth theatre experience.”
One silver lining of this whole situation is that it has brought the community together, the local community but also the wider arts and culture community. “I think what is really special as well, is that everybody has come forward. There’s people who’ve gone on to great success, and it still holds a huge place in their heart as it does with me, and I think it’s lovely that everybody’s come forward to try and save it,” Danson concludes.
The response that has been generated from this announcement speaks for itself; if Oldham loses its theatre, it won’t just be the town’s heart that will be ripped out, it will have a ricochet effect upon the whole arts industry across the UK, something which is evident looking back at the history of the talent it has nurtured and played host to.
This article was amended on 8 February 2023 to clarify that Oldham Theatre Workshop is a separate organisation from Oldham Coliseum, and is managed by Oldham Council. It has previously hired the theatre and used it for performances.
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