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We must fight to save Oldham Coliseum from shutting its doors for good

(Alamy)

4 min read

In 1885, Oldham Coliseum began its life as the Grand America Circus and Hippodrome. The theatre is situated right in the centre of Oldham and back then, like Bolton and other larger northern mill towns, it was surrounded by a dozen theatres and music halls.

Music hall establishments began to flourish in the Victorian era – people came to eat, drink, and be entertained. They were a cultural phenomenon, synonymous with inclusive entertainment affordable for all. Fast forward to 2023, it’s now the only theatre remaining in the town. It’s survived two world wars and years of receding affluence, but still, over 35,000 people passed through the Coliseum’s doors to witness the annual panto last year – the smash hit Robin Hood. Oldham’s pantos are legendary in the North West. This year was no exception. A female sheriff hell bent on terrorising the forest and doing away with Robin, Marion and Friar Tuck so she can be the richest in the land. See, even pantos can be political – or maybe that’s just me? I can’t help drawing a comparison with a town fighting to save its cultural identity and a building trying to save the livelihoods of its staff and a community fighting to be heard.

It smacks of at best a lack of understanding and at worst vandalism

Chris Lawson joined Oldham Coliseum in 2015 and since then has grasped the reins with a vision and understanding of what the theatre and the community needs. 

In November, Chris was hit with the devastating blow that they would be losing their Arts Council funding – previously receiving £600,000 per annum, around a third of their overall revenue. Another third comes from ticket sales and the final portion is from the local council with a mixture of grants and donations. The news rendered the theatre’s future basically null and void.

Who’s to blame? The Arts Council has ring fenced £1.8m for Oldham but none for the theatre. Why? I don’t know. Are Chris and his team being punished for the faults and short comings of their predecessors? Is it that the current government has a disconnect and disinterest in regional arts? Oldham is an area high on the government’s levelling up agenda – promising towns better access, resources, and inclusion. It smacks of at best a lack of understanding and at worst vandalism.

The Arts Council 2023-2026 portfolio placed a focus on organisations being able to reach out to new audiences. That is why I am writing this, because I know from my own experiences as a young working-class woman from a single parent family living in Bolton – who left a comprehensive school with five GCSEs (none above grade C) – the power of theatre and its vital importance to community. To giving both young and old a sense of belonging, confidence and strength.

Now, I’m not saying Oldham Coliseum is perfect. I haven’t worked at a theatre that is, but they are really reaching out to the community and inviting them to the table to be a part of the theatre and laying the foundations for a new, different, and exciting future for the building. For example, Roma Connections runs weekly sessions for Roma women and last year the Khushi Festival, a South Asian performance and arts festival, ran for three days, welcoming 1,500 people to 26 free events. The list goes on. 

With the soaring cost of living, people are having to choose between eat or heat. We have a government delivering racist rhetoric about the plight of refugees. Now more than ever we need places at the heart of our communities to bring us together. Where we can experience and learn about each other. To celebrate and explore our differences and similarities. Oldham Coliseum Theatre has had to become one of those centres, extending its hand to those who need it most, placing hope right at its centre. Don’t let this be the end.

 

Maxine Peake, actor.

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