The audience at Oldham Coliseum Theatre, holding up banners and signs to save the theatre

Yesterday, 21 February 2023, the actors’ union Equity held a public meeting to discuss the Oldham Coliseum Theatre’s uncertain future. Representatives from the industry addressed a packed auditorium, while those with the political and financial capital to save the building were notably absent.

There are a number of people close to the Coliseum that are willing to attest to the mismanagement that has been going on behind the scenes in this long-running saga that goes back further than the events of the last few months. Some of these concerns have now been addressed and new personnel brought in, but there are still many unanswered questions. Arts Council England are being vilified, but are they just the scapegoat for the inevitable closure of a theatre that since 2018 has been destined to fail under the will of Oldham Council and potentially its own management? With yesterday’s announcement of a new ‘performance space’ from Oldham Council to distract from the meeting about saving the current theatre, there are more unanswered questions than ever about why and how a successful theatre that has been at the heart of northern arts for over 100 years can suddenly disappear.

Sue Devaney, who currently plays Debbie Webster in Coronation Street, has frequented the Coliseum since her childhood. Back in 2018 she was performing in Oldham’s famed pantomime. She attended the meeting and spoke to me afterwards. “The Coliseum Theatre last night was, once again, filled with love but is it too late to save it? I have an overwhelming feeling of sadness. My gut instinct told me, this was on the cards a few years ago but only the powers that be can tell us the truth as to what really went on behind the scenes.”  

The discussion panel sit in chairs on the stage at Oldham Coliseum theatre
The panel, L-R: Victoria Brazier (standing), Lynda Rooke, Paul Liversey, Zoe Iqbal, Najma Khalid, Chris Lawson, Cllr Sam Al-Hamdani, Paul Hilton, Maxine Peake

There have been questions raised as to why Arts Council England cut funding now. It has long been a part of the National Portfolio, it has been known that the Coliseum building won’t last forever, and a new build has been on the cards for years. Devaney continues to ask the questions. “Don’t get me wrong, ever since I heard the news, I am still hopeful and I pray for a Plan B, an encore, a miracle or, ideally, a very rich person with £5 million to spare! So why did the Arts Council refuse the grant? And how on earth did it get to this? What’s been happening there in recent years? I was working at the theatre in pantomime a few years ago when we got the news that there was to be no new building for the Coliseum. Everybody was shocked and upset and understandably frustrated. Kevin Shaw was our artistic director at the time. Then things took an even bigger turn for the worse. Kevin, a passionate and hard working director, who had been fighting relentlessly for 11 years for a brand new theatre space (the staff at the Coli had even chosen the colour of their new auditorium seats) came into the rehearsal room and announced he was stepping down and panto would be his last show. Why? I have never known to this day exactly what went on. But I’m pretty sure that Kevin would never have voluntarily left the Coliseum at such a crucial time. And where exactly did all that money go that was meant to be for the new theatre? Maybe the council decided they didn’t want to go ahead with the plans? Maybe the board were asked to bring the curtain down for the final time. Who knows?”

It was at this time it was announced that the latest plans for the new build which were proposed in 2013, after six years, would no longer go ahead. Records show that several grants were awarded for this facility, a facility which seemingly never broke ground. Why were the plans scrapped and where has that money gone? Conservative councillor Dave Arnott, who received a mixed reception at Equity’s public meeting last night, said that Oldham Council has spent over £3 million in consultancy fees for several failed attempts at building a new theatre. His worry is that they’ll close the Coliseum and this new build, which has been publicised just this week without a formal planning application yet, will fall through just like it has before.

There are other issues with the new build too. It is considerably smaller, it has no fly floor which quite frankly is essential for a production company like the Coliseum especially if it wants to put on its legendary pantos, and when pressed on who would actually run this space, Oldham council had no answer. When Chris Lawson, the Coliseum’s artistic director and newly-appointed CEO, also confirmed at the public meeting that there would be no on-site rehearsal space in this new facility, he was met by gasps from the audience; what does this £24 million new build actually have then? Lawson added that, “We can make it work in a theatre of a different size, if we are given the support and the opportunity to do that. What I would say is yes, absolutely, it is a very different space. At the moment we can’t because in 15 days time we might not exist.”

Devaney thinks the whole situation lacks transparency. “In my opinion, summat isn’t right. I smell a rat or two. The Coliseum had a refurbishment back in 2011. The council said the building would have another 10 years. We actually had longer because of the pandemic but maybe it was the council’s plans all along to shut our theatre down? I don’t know. But I do know this…Oldham needs a theatre. Not just for Oldham folk but for the surrounding neighbourhoods. People come from far and wide to see the brilliant shows. I am a local actor, born in Ashton-under-Lyne and brought up in Rochdale. I have worked at this superb theatre a few times over the years. Treading the boards there first when I was just 14. The staff, front of house and backstage, have been loyal, supportive and an absolute pleasure to work for. My heart goes out to these beautiful humans who have worked relentlessly to keep the Coliseum as a thriving repertory company. What is happening is wrong. When will it become about the needs of the people? For our mental health, our educational growth, our communicative skills and our compassion in helping others, we need a safe place where we can laugh, share, build confidence, tell stories, find our joys. This is, and always will be the Coliseum Theatre. And if they tear it down…well…there will be one less ‘happy place.’”

The Arts Council has cited concerns around governance and finances as the reason why the Coliseum was rejected for funding this time. But Lawson admitted and addressed these concerns saying, “The plan that was put in by the previous CEO and Chair of the Board was deemed as high risk. I think the only thing that is higher risk than that is no plan…Two days ago, we put a proposition forward, which we believe addresses all concerns and enables the Coliseum to exist. So if there was a genuine desire for the arts in Oldham and the Coliseum to exist, then there was an opportunity for the council and the Arts Council to talk.” No one from the Arts Council accepted Equity’s invitation to attend the public meeting, nor did any of Oldham Council who were invited to speak. Instead, a symbolic empty chair was a poignant reminder that not everyone is on the same side.

We hear so much about ‘levelling up’ and there is money available to the North for arts and culture. The audience was shocked to hear that Manchester International Festival would be receiving £10 million from the Arts Council, yet Oldham’s £600,000 bid (per year) was rejected with no appeals process available.

Devaney continues, “I understand things change, things move on, but to lose the Oldham Coliseum will be an absolute tragedy. What’s Oldham famous for? Its tubular bandages and that hidden gem down a little back street in the town centre called The Oldham Coliseum! Why can Bolton Octagon Theatre have a complete refurb and thrive brilliantly and the Oldham Coliseum have their funding cut and close? What does it take to run a theatre successfully? A good management team who are creative, who understand the workings of live theatre. A  board of directors who have expertise and experience in the arts and have the theatre’s best interests at heart. A caring council who listen to the needs of its community and audiences. Has the Coliseum had all of this? I think not.”

Jane Hazlegrove, who currently plays Bernie Winter in Coronation Street also spoke up at the meeting, branding the Arts Council’s decision as cruel. She shared first of all what the theatre does for people, “You learn to laugh in this building, you learn to cry, it encourages debate. It means you go outside and talk to your parents about things that you daren’t talk about unless it came up in a play in this building. I learnt so much from here.” She continued to ask about the funding that was awarded to the council instead of the Coliseum, which is set aside for other projects. “The Arts Council’s ring-fenced £1.8 million that would have gone to the Coliseum, and has told Oldham Council it can apply for the money on a project-by-project basis – if the council doesn’t manage to put together enough projects to use with the whole of the £1.8 million, then where will the unspent funds go?”

Devaney’s statement echoes the sentiments not just of those across the industry but of the local people too, “Someone, or some few, need to be accountable for their actions if this well-loved, magical working class creative place disappears off our Northern map forever! I am praying for a miracle. Ideally a miracle with 5 million pounds attached to it! Any millionaires want to save a piece of Oldham’s history and make a lot of very sad people happy again? Any takers? Or givers… I should say? Personally… I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for the Coliseum. It stretched me, moulded me, and helped me reach my full potential as a performer. Please don’t take it away from us. People don’t work in the arts for money… We work in the arts to create, debate and question. So my question is this… WHY?”

More than likely, there are people within the past managerial setup at the Coliseum that need to be held accountable for this. Similarly, there are people within Oldham Council, past and present, and the Arts Council with questions to answer. I don’t think any party is completely innocent but right now, they are not the ones suffering. It’s the local community, the audience that’s suffering, it’s the 70 people facing redundancies, it’s the youth who have nowhere to perform or nowhere to aim for, it’s the elderly, the unemployed, the wider theatre and acting community and it is us who need to stand up and fight this. Leave no stone unturned in the quest for answers and accountability.

A person on stage at the end of the discussion holds aloft a sign that reads 'save Oldham Coliseum'
Save Oldham Coliseum

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Featured image: Equity

All other images: Katy Preen

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  • Zoe Hodges

    Zoe has been a journalist for over eight years specialising primarily in music and sports. She has had the pleasure of interviewing some of the biggest artists in the country music genre and covering major sporting events such as the Women's Euros and the Commonwealth Games. In her spare time she enjoys writing and composing her own music.

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