'The reopening of Oldham Coliseum could be start of an exciting new era for the town - it gives people hope'

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Many people thought this day would never come, but Oldham Coliseum has been saved.

The much-loved regional theatre has been given a second chance thanks to the hard work of a dedicated team of volunteers and a £10million lifeline.

‘The Coli’ caused national outcry when it was forced to shut last year after its Arts Council funding was withdrawn. At the time, a whole host of famous actors spokeout in support of the 139-year theatre, including Sir Ian McKellan and Dame Emma Thompson. More importantly, it roused stakeholders to start the Save Oldham Coliseum campaign and preserve the theatre’s name by continuing valuable arts work within the community. 

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For Oldham-born writer Ian Kershaw, who has been spearheading the campaign alongside his wife, actor Julie Hesmondhalgh, it’s hard to put into words quite how much this means – both to him and the people of Oldham. The pair had the honour of announcing the happy news in front of 100 theatre-goers, workers, supporters and local politicians at a big Fairbottom Street party on July 8.  

Oldham Council

“You don't know what you've got until it's gone. But the people of this town always valued this building,” Ian told ManchesterWorld as we stood in the echoey, seatless auditorium. “People of Oldham don't see this as theatre – high art that exists somewhere else – they don't bother with that, they come to the Coliseum because it’s theirs. It is ours.” 

Everyone who has ever been to the theatre has a story about it, and Ian has many. Several of his plays have been performed here, including one starring his ex-Coronation Street actor wife. As an audience member, he recalled watching Marlene, starring a “gut-wrenching” lead performance from the esteemed Sian Phillips, in which an elderly lady in the front row got up and apologised as she left to catch her bus. Another time, someone shouted “put him down!” during a particularly romantic scene.  

“Performers are told about that kind of relationship when they come and play here. The audience talks to you and you talk back. You have a relationship, this is not sitting at home and watching TV,” Ian added. 

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Even I have my own stories. I used to go to the Panto every year with primary school. During my final year, one of the little reception girls in front of me was so enthralled by the performance, she did not take her hand out of her box of Maltesers the whole time. And when the lights came on an exasperated teaching assistant had to clean all the melted chocolate from her clothes and hand. 

Panto has always been a highlight of the theatre’s program, generating around one third of the Coliseum’s annual ticket revenue each year. Therefore, it’s only fitting it will reopen for panto season 2025. 

Manchester World

Ian said: “We want to fill this theatre again with screaming kids and families, and make it a joyous Christmas tradition for people from all over the region, not just people from Oldham. And then building on that, a return to and growing of being a producing theatre, so making work that is for the people of Oldham, but also for a wider audience.”

There are not many producing theatres in the UK anymore. These are theatres that not only host touring companies, but produce their own shows. In Greater Manchester, there are only two others, Bolton’s Octagon Theatre and the Royal Exchange. 

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This is just one of the reasons Oldham Coliseum is special, Julie told ManchesterWorld: “If you have a beautiful, producing house theatre in a town like Oldham, you've got to fight to keep that.” 

“These places are jewels in the crown of communities. It's really hard when everybody is absolutely on their knees with poverty and cost of living, and unemployment, to talk about the importance of a theatre. But it really, really matters. It really matters for your sense of where you're from, and your history and your heritage, but also the joy, just the joy and entertainment.”

Oldham Council

Julie is a familiar face among the Greater Manchester arts sector and one of its most vocal supporters – particularly when it comes to working class, post-industrial communities like Oldham. She sees the Coliseum, “this lovely old girl”, as the “absolute poster girl” for what can be achieved when people come together and campaign for grassroots arts projects. 

She said: “It's not a privilege, it's right. There's that wonderful old song, 'Bread and Roses' – yes, we want food on our tables, but we also want beauty and art and culture. And I think it will matter a lot moving forward and we'll give people here a real sense of hope.” 

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This rare bit of good news for the arts sector will certainly offer some hope to the other struggling or shuttered local theatres in Greater Manchester. Ian said: “Across the country we've got a lot of people who want to save their theatres, their spaces, whatever they are, and battling to save buildings. And this should be celebrated as people listened, people power changing things.

“The people in the positions of power said actually: Ok yeah, let's do that, what the people want. I think it's encouraging for Tameside Hippodrome and Hulme Hippodrome, and all these places that could have another life.” 

Manchester World

Julie said that as well as a hard-working, determined team of board members, “having the ear” of local decision-makers, including MPs, the council, business and cultural groups, has been essential to the reopening of the Coliseum. Council leader Arooj Shah was at the party to announce the news alongside Julie. Of the £10m investment the theatre now has for its refurbishment, £6m has come from a central government levelling-up grant and the remaining £4m from the council town centre regeneration fund. 

Together with the ongoing regeneration plans, the reopening of the theatre could mean the start of an exciting new era for Oldham. As Ian said: “This is a town full of opportunity. It's ripe for investment, it's ripe for growth. And it is really exciting, I think.”

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The recent change in government has also come at a perfect time for the theatre and Oldham. Wigan MP Lisa Nandy, the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has previously expressed support for the Coliseum online, as has Oldham West MP Jim McMahon, who is now also Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. 

Moving forward, Ian and Julie will hold the title of ‘creative ambassadors’ for the Oldham Coliseum and the board will be chaired by Oldhamer Martina Murphy, who has a wealth of experience leading arts projects all over the north. One of the first steps will then be finding a new general manager and starting on the “long journey” to refurbish the theatre, which will require continued support from the people of Oldham. 

Julie said: “What we're hoping now is that all that passion, all that anger and upset that happened when the announcement came that we had lost the national portfolio funding from the Arts Council and that the doors were going to close, that that passion will now go into supporting the theatre going forward. Because this is just the beginning really.”

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