Oldham Coliseum: Historic theatre stages final act after funding cut

An emotional night of performances and tributes led by actors Maxine Peake and Christopher Eccleston has brought down the final curtain on Oldham’s Coliseum theatre after more than 135 years.

Hundreds of audience members packed the venue for its highly-charged last show.

It has closed after having its Arts Council England funding removed.

Eccleston said he wouldn’t be an actor if it wasn’t for places like the Oldham Coliseum. “And they’re disappearing. So what happens to the next generation?”

Outside Oldham Coliseum theatreIMAGE SOURCE,OLDHAM COLISEUM
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Oldham Council says the theatre building, which dates back to 1887, is “at the end of its life”

The Coliseum was a training ground for a host of stars – from Bernard Cribbins, who joined at 14 and stayed for seven years, to Coronation Street’s Jean Alexander (Hilda Ogden), Barbara Knox (Rita Sullivan) and William Roache (Ken Barlow).

Others to have trod its boards include Happy Valley’s Sarah Lancashire, Doctor Foster’s Suranne Jones, new Doctor Who companion Millie Gibson, and Olivia Cooke from House of the Dragon.

“This is a celebration but it’s also a heartbreaking evening as far as I’m concerned,” former artistic director Kenneth Alan Taylor, who also acted in 320 Coliseum shows, told the sold-out crowd on Friday.

“Just think of all the actors who started their career [here]. There wouldn’t be a Coronation Street now [without it].”

Pat Phoenix (right) ahead of her performance in Tennessee Williams' play Suddenly Last Summer at Oldham Coliseum in 1968IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
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Coronation Street legend Pat Phoenix performed at the Oldham Coliseum in the 1960s

The closing night saw Eccleston and Peake perform excerpts from a new adaptation of Ken Loach’s award-winning film I, Daniel Blake – which was due to have been on the Coliseum stage this summer.

Former Doctor Who star Eccleston, from Salford, went to watch performances at the Coliseum in his youth.

“I think it’s tragic that Oldham and its borough is losing a theatre in a time when we’re supposed to be levelling up,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“What last night was about was beginning a campaign to establish a new theatre in Oldham and also to say, this can’t happen anywhere else.”

Snippets of past shows were also performed – from Brassed Off, the theatre’s highest-grossing production, complete with 15-piece brass band; to Dreamers, a 2015 musical named after the infamous local nightclub in which it was set.

There was a last hurrah for its popular pantomime, with a 15-strong cast in full costume performing a pop medley that climaxed with an upbeat and unexpectedly poignant rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop.

Sue Devaney in Our Gracie at Oldham ColiseumIMAGE SOURCE,OLDHAM COLISEUM
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Sue Devaney returned to reprise her role as Gracie Fields from the 2016 production of Our Gracie

And there was a performance by its youth theatre about the venue’s famous ghost – an actor called Harold Norman, who died after being stabbed on stage during a production of Macbeth in 1947.

Clara Darcy was the final performer, delivering a version of a monologue about endings from her 2022 play We Should Definitely Have More Dancing, which was inspired by her experience of a brain tumour.

Clara Darcy in We Should Definitely Have More DancingIMAGE SOURCE,OLDHAM COLISEUM
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Clara Darcy was the last person to perform on the Coliseum stage

The night’s performers then gathered on stage, receiving a standing ovation that continued for several minutes after the final curtain fell.

“It sort of seems incomprehensible that the Coliseum won’t exist as it was, because it’s such a phenomenal and wonderfully supportive theatre,” Darcy told the BBC beforehand.

After Oldham, her show went to the Edinburgh Fringe and is now being adapted for a Radio 4 drama.

“They really showed the heart and support that our production needed, and without its beginnings at the Coliseum, it wouldn’t have toured and certainly wouldn’t have been picked up by the radio.”

Crowds coming out of Oldham Coliseum theatre in 1946IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
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Crowds coming out of Oldham Coliseum in 1946

Shorelle Hepkin has starred in five pantos, directed the final youth performance, and met her partner at the Coliseum. “As an actor and personally, it’s literally changed my life,” she said.

“Anyone who you speak to who’s worked in that building will probably say that it’s the most welcoming building you can ever walk into, and it does feel like home.”

‘Major risks’

The venue received more than £600,000 a year from Arts Council England (ACE) but became the biggest theatre outside London to lose its subsidy in a shake-up announced in November.

ACE said it had identified “major risks and concerns around their finance, governance and leadership”.

ACE has ringfenced the same amount of money – £1.85m over the next three years – to fund other cultural activity in the Greater Manchester town.

It is also supporting a plan by Oldham Council to create a new £24.5m theatre, which the council has described as “a creative and cultural venue with multiple purposes” and is due to open in 2026.

Image of plans for a new theatre in OldhamIMAGE SOURCE,OLDHAM COUNCIL HANDOUT
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A new theatre is scheduled to be completed by 2026

“The current building is at the end of its life, and performers, staff and audiences deserve better,” council leader Amanda Chadderton has said.

Indeed, the council says the current building has problems with asbestos, poor accessibility and cramped backstage and front-of-house facilities. A £2m renovation in 2012 was intended to give it another decade of use.

However, there is some scepticism about how long it will take to build a new venue, and how it will turn out.

“I don’t want an arts centre,” Taylor said – as if these were dirty words – to cheers from the audience on Friday.

He and other supporters are still holding out a slim hope of saving the current building.

“I’m not an architect, but I see old buildings restored,” he continued. “They say this building’s not fit for purpose. Well restore it then!”

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