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A tragedy and a farce: What’s really going on at the Oldham Coliseum
One of the North’s leading theatres is in a mess, with dozens of jobs at risk. Today, the Arts Council tells The Mill that continuing to fund the Coliseum poses “a significant risk”.
By Mollie Simpson
“I was kind of mid-meeting,” Chris Lawson says, remembering the moment he realised Oldham Coliseum, one of the North’s most storied theatres, would have to cancel its programming and “go dark” for the rest of the year. “We’d all made the same realisation and then I kind of said it.” There was a moment of silence in the room, and then the theatre’s head of finance responded.
“Yeah. You’re right.”
After that meeting in the Coliseum’s office two weeks ago, Lawson — who is both the theatre’s artistic director and chief executive — spent the weekend in a daze. The following Monday, he wrote a script with his marketing lead, Shelly Ramsdale, to prepare what he was going to stay, and called for an immediate all-staff meeting in the staff’s communal area.
“It was horrific, and I don’t wish it on anyone,” he says, remembering the atmosphere in the room. Everyone was sitting in a circle so they could see each other but Lawson felt he couldn’t look anyone in the eye. “You look at people and you’ve spent nearly the last eight years with them and you know their families and it was just met with silence. It felt like the longest silence ever.” Not long after, the Coliseum’s staff were encouraged to go home.
Lawson, an earnest and thoughtful 37-year-old who hails from Rotherham, took on the role of chief executive in December, having been artistic director since 2018, and associate director for three years before that. In November, he found out the theatre had lost Arts Council funding for the next three years, having previously received just over £600,000 per year, representing around a third of overall revenue. A further third comes from commercial ticket sales and the rest is from Oldham Council and a mixture of grants and donations.
The news was a hammer blow that immediately put the Coliseum’s future in grave doubt, prompting protests from actors like Maxine Peake and Julie Hesmondhalgh. Lawson says he organised meetings with the Arts Council and Oldham Council and drafted in a finance lead to help with the budget. “I didn’t go to business school,” he told The Mill when he visited the Royal Exchange to speak to us last week. “I went to drama school.” But it didn’t require the skills of an accountant to see that without the Arts Council, the theatre was no longer commercially viable.
That was the cruel calculus behind Lawson’s message to staff two weeks ago and the Coliseum’s public announcement that it would be cancelling all of its upcoming events from 26 March onwards, with no indication of when it might reopen. That night, concern about the theatre’s future even reached London. "If the Oldham Coliseum does close, you're never going to get a theatre like that again,” said Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark. “135 years and it's one of the biggest theatres in England and it will be gone forever".
As ever, the national media had picked up the essence of the story but not the detail. The story that has led the Coliseum to the brink of closure is a twisted and contested affair, a tragicomedy replete with claims and counter claims, and sources politely throwing each other under the bus — off the record of course. Just as I was making final changes to this piece, I got a call from someone who wanted to distance themselves from what has happened. “Blame the previous management,” was the message. Others I’ve spoken to point their finger at the council. But first let’s set the stage.
‘A huge hole in Oldham’s heart’
The Coliseum was born in 1885 as a performing circus. Back then it was surrounded by almost a dozen other theatres in Oldham town centre. By the 21st century, it was the only theatre that had survived in Oldham. It has, until now, lasted through two World Wars, a high-profile manslaughter on stage in the late 1940s, decades of disappearing affluence in Oldham and then a pandemic that has shattered the finances of theatres across the country.
I got a sense of what the theatre means when reading a recent email from Mill member Caroline Clegg, who remembers being in the midst of the audience for a production of Cinderella:
Buttons was clearly in love with Cinders and the audience were held in the palm of the cast's hands. A little lad of about 8 was so enthralled that he spent the whole show leaning on the balcony living every moment and feeling sorry for Buttons he leaned over the balcony and in a beautiful Lancashire accent said – “oh Buttons for goodness sake, just kiss her!!!” The audience howled with joyful laughter and every one of us in the moment realised that we all need to be reminded of the real magic of theatre as seen through the eyes of a child. It was a very special moment of community — and that is what the Coli represents — community and cultural identity.
As it stands, the Coliseum is one of only 32 remaining “producing theatres” in the country, meaning many of its productions are created by an in-house writing, acting and design team, with some additional freelance support. Because of this, it has acted as something of a talent farm for northern theatre talent, supplying Coronation Street with dozens of actors. Sam Glen, who grew up in a working class Oldham family, credits his appearance at the Coliseum with launching his career, which has taken him — via Corrie — to a string of roles in London. He played Jack in the Coliseum’s 2019 panto, Jack and the Beanstalk, and remembers that when the overture came on, he looked out to the audience and felt tears pricking at his eyes. “I just suddenly felt the wave of emotion I felt as a five year old watching the shows,” he told me when we chatted this week. “I was looking out at those kids and realising I had been one of those kids.”
His co-star and friend Shorelle Hepkin noticed he was about to break and squeezed his hand. “I just think there’ll be a huge hole in Oldham’s heart,” she says about the prospect of losing the Coliseum. “And it’s a massive tragedy.” Julie Hesmondhalgh, who graced the cobbles for 16 years, puts the story in a broader context. “In a time when we are talking about levelling up, about access to culture, and art as a tool for regeneration, this decision feels incomprehensible to me,” she told The Mill. “Oldham is a town that has been hit hard by austerity and the cost of living, and the long-term effects of the closure of the Coliseum can only mean further hardship.”
Oldham is a high priority area for the government in its Levelling Up plan, and Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, says it’s damning that for all its rhetoric, there appears to have been no communication between Whitehall and the Arts Council. “It’s yet another example of the centre (Westminster/Whitehall) holding all the cards and making bad decisions that aren’t joined up and that don’t understand local places like Oldham.”
Hesmondhalgh — like everyone associated with the Coliseum — has known about the growing crisis at the theatre for a long time, namely its crumbling building. For many years, no one can quite tell me how long, the theatre has occupied its wonderfully grand playhouse on Fairbottom Street rent free, a building that is owned by the council and was originally built in the late nineteenth century to house a circus. For at least 15 years, the company has been desperate to move out into a new home.
One former staff member says there is mould on some of the walls and Lawson has admitted in an interview that one of the walls actually fell down recently. There have been frequent repairs and remedial work, including a £2 million facelift in 2012, but there’s a general acceptance among everyone I’ve spoken to that the building is beyond repair, short of an eye-wateringly expensive renovation. Oldham Council developed plans for a new theatre building in 2018, adjacent to the town’s old library building, but insiders say that the plan fell apart when the fancy Italian architect who had been lined up for the project went bust. By the time another architect was in place, costs were spiralling and the council had to choose between redeveloping the library or building the new Coliseum. They picked the former, kicking the town’s most pressing cultural question back into the long grass.
The council’s current leader Amanda Chadderton told me that they have identified a new building and plan to invest £12 million of capital funds in the development, plus an additional £6 million from the £24.4 million Towns Grant the council received from the government in June 2021 to regenerate the town centre. “We’re working on that and prioritising that to do it as quickly as possible,” she says. “But realistically, we can’t open a new building by the end of the year. Even if we started on site at the end of this year, it’s likely going to be another two years.”
Lawson summarises the dilemma. “What we’ve got at the moment is a situation where the current building has issues and the new one doesn’t exist yet,” he says. “If we leave the old building we are homeless.”
‘A very dictatorial way’
Who is the villain of the piece? I’ve been trying to work that out for the past ten days, during which time I have spoken to more than a dozen sources for this story, most of whom disagree on the question of blame. Naturally, a vocal campaign is underway against the Arts Council, which stands accused of committing “cultural vandalism”. Many wonder why it has ring fenced £1.8 million for arts and culture in Oldham over the next three years — the same amount that would have been invested into the Coliseum — while specifying that money can’t be spent on the Coliseum. “I think they’ve done it in a very dictatorial way, to be honest,” says Chadderton. “It’s come out of the blue for the council, and I think it’s come out of the blue for the Coliseum as well.”
Others point at the council dragging its feet in supplying a new building. If the Coliseum is so important to the town’s cultural heritage, why has it been allowed to linger in a rotting building? Or, to put it another way, a local authority which can afford to buy a failing shopping centre can surely stump up the cash for a vital playhouse.
Jen Cleary, the Arts Council’s director of Combined Arts and North, told me organisations like the Coliseum had plenty of warning that this latest round of “portfolio” funding would be “really really competitive”. More importantly, she made clear that the Arts Council had serious doubts about the case for funding the Coliseum any further. “The application we didn’t feel made a strong case against our criteria for funding and also presented quite significant risk in terms of public investment,” she told me on the phone.
I asked her to be a bit more specific. “I think, relative to our strategy, the application they put forward, and we have to take the decision based on the application we get in, it didn’t make a strong case against the strategy. Clearly panto at the Oldham Coliseum is really well loved and very very popular, and a really important fixture of the town for a long time. And there are elements of the work within Oldham Coliseum’s artistic programme that have been successful with different communities.” What’s the but? Cleary was a little too diplomatic to say.
Were the concerns just about the building? Or did they perhaps extend to the organisation’s management in recent years? A quick scroll through Companies House shows the Coliseum has burned through five chief executives in the space of six years, a record of leadership instability that would make a struggling Premier League club blush. There has also been a high turnover within the board of trustees. I’ve heard a sentiment about a lack of confidence in the company structure a few times but exactly what it means remains slightly fuzzy to me — like whispers heard from somewhere behind the stage.
Lawson had only been chief executive for eight weeks when we met him for our interview, having taken over from Susan Wildman late last year (The Mill understands that Wildman left by mutual consent). Despite more than five years as artistic director, Lawson says he finds it difficult to comment on the quality of the theatre’s previous management. “I was always at a different distance to the information,” he told me, although he mentions that “earlier action” could have been taken to make the theatre more financially sustainable and futureproof. “You know that eventually you're gonna have to go out of the building, and you know eventually that you're going to have to change how art is made or how money is spent on art,” he said. “Don't leave that to the last minute. Like, start doing something about that sooner.”
For its 2023-2026 portfolio round, the Arts Council has placed a particular focus on funding organisations that are able to reach new audiences. The Coliseum takes pride in its record of attracting a more working class crowd who might not venture into Manchester to HOME or the Royal Exchange, but that’s not the only kind of diversity that matters. “We need to get real,” tweeted the theatre director Jenna Omeltschenko last week. “The Coliseum has always been one of the whitest audiences I’ve seen in one of the most diverse towns in the country”. Omeltschenko wasn’t arguing that the theatre should close, but she raises a pertinent point about who publicly funded culture actually serves in Oldham, a borough that has unseated two council leaders in the space of two years and whose unstable politics is still clearly poisoned by past racial resentments.
Coliseum insiders say their programming is progressive and their casting is diverse. Love N Stuff, a memorable two-hander that portrayed a marriage on the edge of failure, was praised in the Guardian for its representation of South Asian stories, and was nominated for an Asian Media Award for championing diversity on stage. A pantomime production of Aladdin, postponed to Christmas 2021 because of the pandemic, was described as warm and charming, without any racial stereotypes. The Coliseum’s outreach work with the Roma community is praised for opening up the theatre to a community who have not traditionally engaged. “We were trying to be braver with the work that we put on,” Lawson said, explaining how his artistic choices have skewed more “contemporary” in recent years in the hope that they would draw in different people.
But a former staff member says this didn’t result in growing audiences — it may have done the opposite. “Making work that is more challenging, more contemporary, there might be older audiences who might not have engaged in the way they did previously,” they said.
The final act?
So what happens now? The Coliseum has entered a consultation period to decide its future. “We’re absolutely not saying we’re closed long term,” insists Lawson, while admitting at the same time that “everything is at risk”. The Arts Council says it is in regular conversations with Oldham Council about its plans for a new programme of cultural activity in the borough, some of which might be in the building that was intended for the Coliseum, which is thought will now be a “mixed performance space”.
The decision to close the Coliseum will forever be associated with another tragedy. On Monday, the team found out the general manager of the Coliseum, Lesley Chenery, passed away. In a statement, the Coliseum said: “Lesley was the backbone of the Coliseum; her presence at the theatre over the past weeks has brought immeasurable relief to us all. She was a friend, a support and a rock to many current and previous members of Coliseum staff. Her knowledge, experience and love for the Coliseum and its team is unmatched. We will miss her beyond words. Our thoughts are with her family and friends.”
When my editor Sophie and I met Lawson, it was late on a Friday afternoon and the room was windowless, giving the interview a weird, numbing effect that meant we lost any sense of time. It felt like it could have been late at night or 8am in the morning. I remember his eyes were bloodshot and he seemed weary.
Ultimately, he wants what’s best for Oldham, even if that’s a future without the Coliseum in it. “It comes down to doing what’s best for the town, in a way that protects and supports arts and culture,” he said. “And that might not be putting plays on in the same way that we’ve been doing for 70 years, in a building that’s 135 years old. I kind of actually accept that.”
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