Oldham Coliseum is around 135 years old and has a treasured place in the hearts of Oldhamers and beyond. The theatre provides a considerable outreach programme as well as offering all the benefits theatre can bring to a town. In a deprived area of the North West the theatre can provide a place of escape and a doorway to another world.
For so many North West freelance theatre practitioners Oldham Coliseum was the place where we learnt our craft and had opportunities that we’d never get anywhere else. That is why so many stars of stage and screen consider Oldham the place where it all started. Well-known contemporary performers like Sarah Lancashire, Siobhan Finneran, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Ian Kershaw all began their careers there, along with Minnie Driver and Ralph Fiennes. Stan Laurel, Charlie Chaplin, Thora Hird, Eric Sykes and Bernard Cribbins all had their moments on that historical stage. Its pantomimes are nationally acclaimed and pack out every year, so in terms of theatre heritage and its value to the town it is an important venue.
This year the theatre failed in its bid to maintain national portfolio organisation (NPO) status with Arts Council England (ACE), which deemed the organisation “risky” and withdrew 100 per cent of the funding – £600,000 a year – it needed to survive and continue producing work. In response the theatre decided to close, with immediate effect.
ACE had £1.8m ringfenced for art and culture in Oldham and gave that money to the town council which, by its own admission, doesn’t know about theatre. Oldham Council also owns the theatre building, which is very old and some say beyond repair.
However, in 2012 the Coliseum was given a grant of £2m for refurbishment and renovation. It turns out that all that money was spent to give the building a further 10 years during which the plan was to build a new theatre inside the old town hall. It seems odd that £2m would be spent on a building that was known to be reaching the end of its life. The new proposed building came with £3m worth of consultancy fees – the plans stumbled on but were finally scrapped in 2018. That is an awful lot of money spent on basically nothing.
At the same time that Equity, the trade union for creative workers, called a public meeting to save the Coliseum attended by 400 people last month, the council announced the building of a new theatre at the cost of £24m. The new theatre that will allegedly replace the recently refurbished Coliseum will be a lot smaller, and without any scenery flying capabilities – it will basically be a performance space for small-scale tours and with nothing like the capabilities of the existing but old building. There are also concerns that with a smaller seating capacity the venue will not be financially viable, nor will it draw in the numbers of a larger venue.
Would it be worth spending some of the £24m to rebuild the Coliseum instead? Stockport Plaza’s loving and painstaking refurbishment cost £3.3m and is full to the brim of beautiful Art Deco lavishness. That £24m could go a long way!
Oldham Coliseum provides valuable income for local performers and creative workers. The Arts Council has failed to prioritise supporting good, union jobs when it makes its funding decisions. If this theatre company closes, it is highly unlikely that another one with similar skills, calibre and dedication to employing local people to produce work for its local community will take its place. Unlike with the move of the Library Theatre Company to Home in 2009, the workforce has been given no transition plan, and 70 staff are left facing redundancy.
It is a mess. There is a lack of transparency and the staff and theatre workers are in limbo with no idea what is happening with their livelihoods. No one knows who is making decisions about who can access and create art and culture in the town.
Who will run and manage the new building, if there is one? And will the staff at the Coliseum be employed in the jobs they do now?
There is a strong campaign led by Equity and the local community to demand the Arts Council does the right thing and restores funding to Oldham Coliseum. Equity’s general secretary Paul Fleming travelled up to Manchester for crunch talks with the Arts Council last week, and held a press conference immediately announcing the latest in his negotiations with them. It is clear that the Arts Council could solve this crisis overnight by signing a cheque.
Mark Chatterton is a freelance theatre practitioner from Macclesfield, whose credits include 19 Rock & Roll pantos for the Liverpool Everyman and involvement in over 25 productions at the Coliseum