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Oldham Council remain ‘committed’ to retaining the artistic legacy and history of the Coliseum at new venue


There was an outpouring of love and support from residents, theatre-goers and actors when the iconic venue announced last month that it would be cancelling all future performances from the end of March.

Its financial security had been decimated by the confirmation in November that it had been dropped from the Arts Council England (ACE) funding portfolio.

Despite this bitter blow, many hoped there was still a chance the Fairbottom Street venue could carry on and it would not be the end of live theatre in the town.

However this week bosses confirmed the devastating news that the historic theatre has entered into a period of consultation with staff and are proposing to shut permanently on March 31.

In a statement the Coliseum said the ‘current financial situation’ was not sustainable for the running of a full-time theatre and it was with ‘great regret’ that it would be closing its doors.

Artistic director and CEO Chris Lawson had already said that physical problems with the Fairbottom Street building meant a new venue was needed.

“Ultimately the question around staying in the building long term was never really on the cards,” he said. “But that’s difficult when a new build is still being discussed but doesn’t yet exist.”

Council leader Amanda Chadderton said the authority remains committed to the creation of a new theatre on Union Street and will attempt to ‘retain the name and artistic legacy’ of the Coliseum.

But in the centre of Oldham, residents are still reeling from what the loss of its theatre will mean for their town.

Daniella Dabrowsky, a Latin and ballroom dancer says she was ‘gutted’ by the news. Although she has never performed on its stage herself, the 34-year-old has seen numerous shows including Maxine Peake’s ‘Beryl’.

“I do think it’s a shame because we had a lot of stars from Oldham go into Coronation Street and things like that, it’s supported a lot of up and coming people,” she adds.

“I have actually got a friend who used to perform there and he’s performing on the cruise ships now.

“I think we need more things like this to support the arts in Oldham. We have lost a lot, especially for acting and drama.

“In Oldham a lot of people don’t have much money and being local it made it easier. Not everyone can afford to go and see shows or take their kids to ones in Manchester.”

Victor Hallam sighs when asked about what its closure means for him, and his town. “It’s sad. I have been there over the years, pantomimes and things like that, and used to take the kids,” the 77-year-old says.

“I’m not an Oldhamer, but I have lived here 50 years and it’s always been here. It’s been somewhere to take the grandkids and have happy memories.

“It’s an institution, the Coliseum. I have never heard anyone say a bad thing about it.”

The venue dates back to 1885 when it began life as the Colosseum in the town centre, among a cluster of other theatres which sprang up to entertain residents during the peak of the cotton industry.

By the 21st century the Coliseum had become the only surviving professional theatre in the town.

Despite its small size of just 585 seats, it has an illustrious CV of past performers, from comedy titans such as Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, to modern movie stars Ralph Fiennes and Minnie Driver.

Many of the early cast members of Coronation Street, including Jean Alexander as Hilda Ogden, began their careers at the Coliseum’s repertory company.

Kay Snowden says she is currently trying to book tickets for Radio GaGa, the Queen tribute show – and one of the last performances at the theatre before it closes.

“As long as I have lived in Oldham I have known it’s always been there. I think a lot of people will be quite upset about it really,” she adds.

“I used to teach at a nearby school and we used to bring the classes down for the panto.”

Without somewhere local, the 69-year-old says she’ll be likely forced to travel into Manchester to see similar productions. “With the tram it’s quite accessible, but it’s a shame for Oldham,” she adds.

A lifelong Oldhamer on Yorkshire Street, who doesn’t want to be named, believes the loss of the Coliseum is part of a bleaker picture of changes within the town.

“I am not really a theatre goer but it is sad for a town to lose its theatre. A lot of people have come through there,” he says.

“They have still got the theatre workshop and all that but I am afraid it is just a sign of the times.

“Everything has just gone so expensive and dare I say more in the north than the south. Generally, it’s never been as bad, the divide.”

Mum Emma Whitehead took her young son to see Zog, an adapation of the book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler at the Coliseum in 2021. She says its looming closure is ‘disappointing’.

Gesturing at her little boy, she adds: “I took him when he was 18 months old and it’s a nice place for the community.

“It’s also a good income to Oldham, all the people coming in and going out to eat and things like that. That revenue will go too.

“It’s a shame because it feels like it’s been there forever, every time I went there I was surprised by how busy it was.”

The 42-year-old adds that the Coliseum was also vastly more affordable than other alternatives, with it costing almost double for a family to visit a bigger venue like the Lowry in Salford, including travel.

Her father Antony Whitehead chimes in: “It was a nice theatre, it’s part of the town. It just feels like nobody is really interested in Oldham.”

He had hoped ambitious plans laid out under then council leader Jim McMahon to move the Oldham Coliseum theatre into a state-of-the-art purpose built new venue would be successful. But the project, which would have cost £27m was shelved in 2018.

In 2021 council chiefs appointed a design team to create a new performance space at 84 Union Street, in the the Old Post Office and former Quaker Meeting House which would be a replacement home for the Coliseum.

Coun Chadderton said: “Like nearly everyone else in Oldham I’m devastated to hear the latest update from the Coliseum – that they propose to close the doors for good – but I understand the reasons for the difficult decision that they’ve come to.

“The council has been talking to them since November when they found out they were losing Arts Council funding and we have tried to help them in every way possible to continue, but the scale and severity of their financial challenges seem to have proven insurmountable.

“The building is no longer fit for purpose, it’s not compliant for accessibility, and it’s in a poor state of repair – audiences, performers and staff deserve better.”

She added: “The plan was that the Coliseum would always move out of their home on Fairbottom Street and move to do more productions and outreach work in the community to build an offer and a demand for the new theatre.

“Oldham Council remains committed to building a new theatre on Union Street as part of our regeneration plans for the town centre.

“We will continue to work with the Coliseum and Arts Council during this difficult time for the Coliseum and it’s staff, and see if there is a way to retain the name and the spirit of the great artistic legacy that the Oldham Coliseum has.”

Having relied on funding from Arts Counc England for several years, and because Oldham was listed as a ‘Levelling Up for Culture’ place by ACE, the Coliseum hoped it would remain in the portfolio for the next three years, however its application for £615,182 a year to 2026, was unsuccessful.

At the time of the decision in November, Arts Council England said it had received a ‘record-breaking’ number of applications and consequently had to make ‘difficult decisions’ on where to distribute funding.

After the Coliseum announced its closure from next month, an Arts Council spokesperson said: “Oldham Coliseum has begun the required consultation with its staff about future options, following their decision at the end of January to cancel forthcoming events. We understand this must be a very difficult time and are working to support the company’s board and management who are leading this process.

“Alongside our current funding, which continues until the end of March, we recently agreed transition support of £358,856 to help give the company time and space to make decisions about its future.

“Arts Council England remains committed to Oldham and we’ll be investing £1.845 million in the town so that people don’t miss out on amazing creative activities.

“We’re working closely with Oldham council on how this significant investment should be used to support the future of performing arts in Oldham and we are fully behind plans for a performing space for the town.”

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