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Theatre talents back Oldham Coliseum

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

Picture of Oldham Coliseum theatre

Celebrity signatories to an open letter in support of Oldham Coliseum claim the 137-year-old theatre could be reopened for relatively little money.

The building, they believe, is far from being "not fit for purpose" - a term used for several years in a general context by those believing a new theatre was on the verge of being given the go ahead, but lately mainly adopted by those in favour of its closure.

A condition survey published last month suggested the council's opinion, in February, that the building was "in a poor state of repair" was incorrect, and that the theatre is in good general order (indeed was open to the public and functioning without significant problems right up to its closure in March).

The survey, commissioned by Oldham Coliseum Trust and conducted by independent surveyors Plann, suggested the theatre could reopen with immediate effect after works costing around £150,000.

The report's author suggests most of a wide range of defects identified by the council are "relatively minor maintenance issues".

“Other than completing the recommended works to upgrade fire doors, there is nothing we feel would fundamentally stop the building from reopening,” the report says.

Bringing the Coliseum up to scratch would cost the council - which owns the building - around £240,000 this financial year and £126,000 over the next two years, if the aim was to maintain the theatre indefinitely. Work would need to be done to the heating system, pipework, electrics, lifts, structure and roofs, which are nearing the end of their life, medium term. Though these are relatively small amounts, bear in mind the council has still to find the £500,000 it needs to reopen the town's other theatre space, Grange Arts Centre, closed due to electrical problems.

The loss of the Coliseum's Arts Council grant, though not related to structural work within the building, was another indicator that funding has been gradually withdrawn from the building. A damning report into the theatre's governance, published a few weeks ago, suggested there were major failings in the board's operations over several years and this had led to the Arts Council's withdrawal.

Despite the new report suggesting reopening wouldn't be massively expensive, council leaders have continued to reiterate their belief that the theatre's life is at an end, citing the need for major long-term repairs. The new report, the council suggests, gave a solution only to get the theatre back up and running and didn't fully address its major issues.

Nonetheless, the report has been a rallying point for those who want to see the theatre saved. A long list of famous names has come out in favour of reopening: "This [report] could and should be wonderful news for the town, presenting as it does an opportunity to preserve and celebrate a building with such a rich history," they say in an open letter.

"We believe the plans to build a dazzlingly expensive new Coliseum in the town centre with a smaller stage, far fewer seats, no fly tower and little wing space are impractical and unsustainable as a business model and crucially, will certainly preclude any chance of it running as a producing theatre.

"The world-famous, much-loved and acclaimed annual panto, which has always been the Coliseum’s main moneymaker (generating up to a third of ticket sales) will definitely not be able to take place there in its current planned incarnation.

"There are also important concerns regarding access requirements: limited lift space, and no adult changing room, which is a statutory requirement for public buildings.

"We are calling for a new positive conversation to take place between local campaigners, artists, Oldham Council, Oldham Coliseum Theatre Ltd and the various funding bodies, with a view to preserving and utilising the auditorium as the beating heart of a new/old theatre in the town reimagined for a fraction of the ring-fenced £24 million.

"There is a way we can save the historic auditorium, and expand and rebuild the foyer, backstage and cafe-bar area, create studio and rehearsal spaces fit for the next 138 years, and return the Coliseum to its former glory as a producing theatre, with everything that means to the town and to the artistic workforce as a whole. Is the fight to save Oldham Coliseum over? Oh no, it isn’t!"

Among the signatories are Julie Hesmondhalgh, Ian Kershaw, Sian Phillips, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson, Greg Wise, Sir Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Jim Carter, Maureen Lipman, Christopher Eccleston, Maxine Peake and former Oldham panto star Eric Potts, as well as Oldham-raised stars such as Paul Hilton, Suranne Jones, Siobhan Finneran, Barbara Knox, Matthew Dunster, Shobna Gulati, Antony Cotton, Sally Ann Matthews, Sue Devaney, Nicola Stephenson, John Henshaw, Colin Snell and of course, Judith Barker and Kenneth Alan Taylor, the latter about as deeply ingrained in the theatre fabric as any acting couple could be.

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