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The curtain falls at the Oldham Coliseum. This time it’s for good
On a night of tears and standing ovations, we were in the audience as one of the North’s great old theatres put on its last ever show
By Mollie Simpson
6pm at Oldham Coliseum. Four young actors are in rehearsals for a play they have had two weeks to learn. It’s a last-minute operation. The audience — this grand old theatre’s last ever audience — is arriving in 90 minutes.
The story, written by Maxine Peake, is about Beryl Burton, an iconic racing cyclist from Yorkshire, and her journey towards breaking the cycling world record at a prestigious race in Leipzig.
The scene is set against a backdrop of twinkling stars, and other than two bikes propped up on stilts, the stage is mostly bare. Chris Lawson, the Coliseum’s artistic director and chief executive, is sitting in the front row chewing his pen while the actors work through lines. Tori, a young actress with bouncy curls, is narrating — reading from a script in her hand that she’s holding tightly.
“You’re supposed to be doing it in a German accent,” Charlie, her co-actor, informs her.
“I’m trying, I’m trying, I’m really trying,” Tori says.
“Guys, we’ve got ten minutes left!” Jim shouts, and they click back into the scene.
Tonight is the final show at the Coliseum before it goes dark forever, the sad culmination of a story that has been developing for months, or perhaps really for years. Mill readers will know the context here – in February we published a long read under the headline “A tragedy and a farce: What’s really going on at the Oldham Coliseum”. In that I spoke to a range of current and former staff about various factors that have driven the theatre towards this point, including a crumbling old building, withdrawn national funding and some major questions about past management. Now I’m back to witness the final scene of the final act.
For the next few months, I’m told staff will come in to shred important documents, wipe data from their systems and clear everything out of the building, but there will be no theatre, no writing pantomime scripts or being chastised by longtime audience members in the stage bar. Then at the end of June, everyone will be made redundant. Lawson, production manager Adam Gent, producer Jamie Walsh, wardrobe supervisor Lucy Woodcock, company manager Jane Newbury-Jones, press officer Shelly Ramsdale and technical manager Kev Leach have spent the last two weeks putting together a show that honours the legacy of the theatre and gives its audience a chance to say goodbye. It sold out in half an hour.
On my way to meet Chris Lawson in one of the theatre offices, I wind through the corridors and find heartfelt messages inscribed on the walls in permanent marker. In the stage bar, a group of dancers are rehearsing a dance routine to Don’t Stop by Fleetwood Mac, giggling and bumping into the columns. They’re tactile and gentle with each other, helping out with dance moves and stopping to reminisce with box office and stage management staff, who regularly pass through and stop for a hug and natter.
“There was something unsettling about the idea of myself, Adam and Kyle locking the doors quietly on a Friday night and going for a drink and a cry,” Lawson says. “And that felt utterly wrong. Ultimately, it’s about coming together.”
Around us, the walls are battered and the ceiling is textured with peeling paint and cracks. Outside, the sign welcoming you to the Coliseum is washed out from too much rain. You can tell there was once something opulent about the place: the red velvet seats in the auditorium, the beautiful curved walls. Over the years, that has faded.
In November, the Coliseum — a 138-year-old producing theatre in the heart of Oldham — lost its Arts Council funding of £600,000 a year, representing around a third of revenue. In the following months, the theatre’s future looked bleak, and then in February, Lawson cancelled all events from late March and admitted the theatre would go dark “indefinitely”. When I met Lawson at the Royal Exchange back then, he was immaculately dressed but had dark circles under his eyes. “We’re absolutely not saying that we’re closed long term because we’re not in a position where we can preempt anything,” he told me. “But everything is at risk.”
In the following weeks, there would be a high-profile and fiery campaign for the Arts Council to reverse its decision and save the Coliseum. “Art should not be for the elite, it should be for everybody,” said Peake, in a rousing speech at a public meeting in the auditorium in February. In the audience, a crowd of people were sitting holding placards that read: “Save our Theatre”. A petition to save the theatre topped 13,242 signatures — a decent number, but not one that suggested the people of Oldham would be rioting in the streets about the loss of their local theatre.
Some lay the blame at Oldham Council’s door for not repairing or replacing the building, which has been slowly rotting over the last two decades and is now beyond repair. The council have dragged their feet over procuring a new space, which has essentially made the Coliseum homeless. Many people demanded answers from the Arts Council, who they felt had stripped the lifeblood from a community theatre in a working-class area.
Others blame the Coliseum itself. When I spoke to Jen Cleary, Combined Arts and North director at the Arts Council, she explained their reasoning in more detail. The Coliseum’s application for another round of funding presented “quite significant risk in terms of public investment”. Former staff members hinted at instability in the senior management of the theatre in recent years, and a brief scroll through Companies House explained why: the Coliseum had burned through five chief executives in six years.
After accounts were published showing a funding loss of £1.8 million over three years and declining ticket sales, things didn’t look good. The hard decision to close the Coliseum came on 16th March. “It is with deep sadness that we confirm the forthcoming closure of Oldham Coliseum Theatre and the beginning of a redundancy process that will affect all staff,” read a statement, adding that the financial situation was “not sustainable for the current continuation of the business”.
Ever since that final decision was made, people have been rushing to the theatre as if visiting a family member in bad health. The legendary Kenneth Alan Taylor, who first performed at the Coliseum in 1959 and worked as artistic director from 1978 to 1996, was in the box office earlier this week when a woman approached him and clutched both of his hands. “Oh Kenneth, it’s so sad, isn’t it,” she said, and then burst into tears and walked away. Another couple, a woman and a man with dementia, were found standing in the lobby saying goodbye recently.
I wanted to be here for the final show on Friday night to feel closer to the story of what Oldham has had, and what it is losing. I find Taylor clutching a tall drink in the lobby. “The audiences here are extraordinary,” he says, emphasising the last word so much that a tiny bit of spit lands on my shoulder. “They are so honest, so truthful, loyal, they are extraordinary. If they don’t like something, they’ll say what the bloody hell was that about. And that’s what I think is so wonderful.”
An old friend interrupts us. “Kenneth! I haven’t seen you for years,” she says, and her eyes fill with tears. I’m aware, in a peripheral way, that people need to grieve and catch up with each other, so I slip away to the bar.
It’s 7pm, and the theatre is starting to fill with people. Amongst the sadness, there’s also a lot of disgust. “It’s not the Arts Council, it’s Oldham Council that hasn’t pulled themselves together,” says a man to his friends at the ice cream counter. And outside, under the grey skies: “I heard Factory International have had millions thrown in. Why can’t they save our theatre?”
The final show, Encore, is a tribute to recent pantomimes and plays seen at the Coliseum. I notice tissues in an elderly woman’s hand, clutched ready for the inevitable.
Not all of the performances are as polished as they could be, but tonight’s fare is warm-hearted and funny. There’s a lovely dedication to Lesley Chenery, the former head of production and general manager who died eight weeks ago. There’s a moving performance by Gypsy Jam, a folk band based in Oldham who have performed regularly with the Coliseum, which speaks to one of the theatre’s primary strengths: connecting with communities that may not otherwise engage with theatre. “The Coliseum has given us a home,” a band member tells the audience. “As a Gypsy, home can be hard to come by. Thank you for making us feel at home for the first time.”
But there’s also a lot of anger. Maxine Peake and Christopher Eccleston don’t hold back in a script reading of I, Daniel Blake, a searing critique of bureaucracy and attitudes to the working classes, allowing their rage to spill over. Kenneth Alan Taylor gives a speech about his love for the theatre and for Oldham, which is scathing about the council’s plans for a new £1.8 million multi-purpose arts hub near the library and the way they’ve allowed the Coliseum to decline. “I don’t want a bloody arts centre,” he says, really rousing the audience. “They say this building’s not fit for purpose, well, bloody well restore it then.”
No one wants it to end, but end it must. At the end of Act Two, Chris Lawson comes back on stage to give a farewell speech. He looks as though he’s about to break, and then the audience cheers and he regains a bit of composure. “I don’t have the words,” he says, looking out into the dark. “But I do have the heart. And we all have the heart. £1.8 million. You can’t put a price on this. This is priceless.” He’s met with the loudest cheer of the night, and then, all the actors and writers join him on stage. For dramatic effect, Lawson asks us to wait to applaud while they all assemble together, and the room goes eerily silent.
There they all are, Chris Lawson, Tori, Charlie, Jim, Kenneth, Clara Darcy, Shorelle Hepkin and Sam Glen, two much-loved regular fixtures in the panto, Maxine Peake, Christopher Eccleston, and so many more people I can’t name but the audience members around me certainly could. They hold hands and look out at us earnestly, and the audience shares an instinct that we should start applauding. People start to stand up and roar, whistling and making as much noise as they can.
Then the curtain closes for the final time. We clap for what feels like the longest time. When the lights turn back on, many of us filter back to the stage bar. “How do you feel?” I ask Kenneth, who is buying a drink, looking tired. “Flat, to be honest with you,” he says. Back in the auditorium, a dozen people are still sitting in the red velvet seats, surrounded by all the faded glamour, staring at the empty stage. Encore wrapped around half an hour ago, but no one tells them to move. They’re not ready to leave yet.
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