The group handed out balloons to children and gave out leaflets to residents who grinned from ear to ear as the campaigners chanted “Over for the Coli? Oh no it isn’t!”
The group then made their way past the Annie Kenney statue before continuing their calls for action on the steps of the boarded up Coliseum Theatre.
Hesmondhalgh outlined the importance of the Coliseum to the people of Oldham and the wider arts community: “It has a long history of providing great entertainment and thought-provoking theatre for audiences in Oldham and it’s a special place, it’s always held a place in people’s hearts.”
Sean Connolly who used to work at the theatre and performed there as part of Oldham Theatre Workshop was a vocal member of the group alongside his mum Julie who also holds dear memories of the Coliseum.
Julie said: “I’ve been going to the theatre since I was a child, I’m in my 60s now and I went with my grandparents, my parents and then my niece and Sean. When he was nine, he wanted to join Oldham Theatre Workshop which turned into him being on stage at the Coliseum.”
“I have such an association with it,” Sean says. “A lot of my friendship groups come from the theatre, it just holds a massive part of my life.”
When asked about the purpose of the day, Sean said: “It’s a message to the council on an important day. We should be opening the pantomime today and we’re not.”
Even seven months after it closed its doors, there was still a lot of emotion outside the building on Fairbottom Street as people of all ages gathered.
David Rustidge who came to his first Oldham Coliseum pantomime back in the 60s and went on to become house manager there in 1982, said: “It was a place of employment, it was a place of enjoyment. It was a place where you met people, it was so many things.”
Rustidge worked there until his retirement in 2016 when he returned to the theatre as a volunteer up until its closure earlier this year.
Rustidge said he was ‘devastated’ when the theatre closed: “I look back on all those productions, musicals, straight plays, dramas, pantomimes – they’ve all become part of history and I hope that history isn’t lost.”
Hesmondhalgh continued: “I think people think, we tried, but failed and I think for us, there was a feeling of have we done everything we can and I think all of us thought, we can give it one last push.”
The panto brought in a third of the Coliseum’s yearly ticket sales as schools and families travelled far and wide to attend.
Writer Ian Kershaw, who is from Oldham and has had a number of his plays performed at the theatre, said the panto was his favourite time of year at the Coliseum and reiterated its importance to the wider community: “It’s such an important building not just for Oldham, but for the entire North West and beyond, it is known worldwide for its panto.”
Though a new theatre has been talked about by Oldham Council, ground hasn’t yet been broken and Oldham is still without a theatre.
The campaigners are trying to find a compromise between the council, the funders and the new board of the Coliseum as Hesmondhalgh reiterated that the new build is not what the people of Oldham want: “For a fraction of the cost of this new ‘not-fit-for-purpose’ arts centre, we could knock down everything around the Coliseum and build a new bobby-dazzler foyer, studio, bar, cafe and keep the historic, heritage of the auditorium intact.”
The plans depict a theatre with no fly tower and considerably fewer seats than the previous auditorium, raising the question about whether it would still be a producing theatre and if it would have the capacity to host the famous panto.
Kershaw added: “We want to encourage the council to look again at saving the existing building rather than building a brand new auditorium that’s half the size. Is there a way of taking that structurally sound auditorium and building around it for a fraction of the cost?”
The new build is estimated to cost in the region of £24million.
Actor John Henshaw, who was also in attendance reiterated: “In these times of austerity, Oldham’s got very little, you should have two things in a town – a good library and a good theatre. It’s got a good library but we’ve lost the theatre which was the heart of it and it was more like a community centre, now it’s gone.”
The campaigners are aware of the challenges they face in getting the theatre reopened as actress Annie Wallace outlined: “What you see in front of you is a beloved building completely bereft of everything you need to put on a theatre show. There are no seats, there are no lights, there is no sound, there are no curtains. There is precious little of what used to be the warmth of the Oldham Coliseum in there other than the warmth of the building, and the love that Oldham has for the theatre. Could it be turned around? Yes, absolutely!”
The campaigners made a lot of noise as they raised their voices accompanied by an array of percussion instruments and Hesmondhalgh feels confident their plan will work: “I feel really, really hopeful because the campaign is positive. We’re not trying to blame anybody, all that’s gone.”
The flash mob was just the latest event organised by the campaigners, following a letter they had published by The Stage signed by several stars such as Ian McKellen and Suranne Jones.
The group meets regularly as they continue their quest to save the Fairbottom Street building.
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All images: Zoe Hodges