Julie Hesmondhalgh leads celebrations as the Coliseum Theatre is saved following U-turn

Reporter: Charlotte Hall, Local Democracy Reporter
Date published: 08 July 2024

Wedged into a narrow lane in Oldham, a crowd erupted into thunderous applause.

Actors, writers, councillors, residents, dancers and youth group volunteers gathered for a ‘summer street party’ on Fairbottom Street. 

Really, they were there to hear ‘Oldham’s worst-kept secret’ from actor and campaigner Julie Hesmondhalgh – the town’s historic theatre venue, the Oldham Coliseum, has officially been saved. 

Tearing up as she spoke, Hesmondhalgh said: “I have the huge honour to tell you that Oldham Coliseum, Fairbottom Street, will be open for the panto in 2025 – and for hundreds of years to come.”

The almost 140-year-old theatre was forced to close its doors after the Arts Council England withdrew a £1.8m grant.

The council had already planned to create a new home for the Coliseum.

But after initial plans were scrapped because of soaring costs, the move would have meant downsizing to an ‘arts and culture venue’ that no longer operated as a producing theatre.

‘Nobody’ wanted that, according to Hesmondhalgh. 

After almost a year- and-a-half of campaigning by Save the Coliseum Group – spearheaded by Hesmonhalgh and screenwriter Ian Kershaw – a plan is now in place.

The council has secured £10m investment to refurbish and reopen the theatre at the Fairbottom site. 

Hesmondhalgh told the LDRS: “I think this is a huge step in the right direction.

"just for the art and culture in town but across the board because any Northern town needs a heart at the centre of it.” 

The crowd at the celebration, which featured Panto numbers by Sue Devaney, dance performances and a brass band, were ‘delighted’ by the news. 

Sam Bamforth, who wandered into the festivities by accident, said he was ‘over the moon’ at the announcement. 

“My mum, Carol, used to work here as a seamstress for 15 years making all the costumes,” the 52-year-old told the LDRS.

“I was devastated when I saw it all boarded up. 

“It means so much to people here.” 

Campaigners have highlighted that the theatre is closely tied up with Oldhamer’s memories and their sense of self. 

“We need something to bring us together and celebrate this place,” James McIntyre, who grew up in Oldham, said. 

The 32-year-old was at the event with his partner Josh Martin, 31, who had started visiting the Coliseum Panto as a child from Bolton.  

Josh said: “We both visited the Panto here when we were kids, so we were probably in the same group here at some point.

"And now, years later, we’re together. 

“This is the first year I’ve missed the panto since I was two-years-old.

"My gran and grandad used to take me every year and I’ve really missed it. It’s the best panto in Greater Manchester.” 

Clara Darcy, Eastenders and Hollyoaks actor, told the LDRS she had her first professional job at the Coliseum in 2007. 

She said: “What’s really brilliant about the Coliseum is that it gives opportunities to local actors and writers. It’s always had a tradition of employing Oldham people.”

Clara said she was delighted. “I was part of the last closing show here,” she added.

“When the curtain came down it was so heartbreaking, there was just silence on both sides because I think people were still in shock.”

She’s not the only actor to have cut her teeth at the Coliseum. Sue Devaney, Jane Danson and Sarah Lancashire have all attributed some of their professional development to the venue. 

As a volunteer at the Coliseum for 22, Kayla Pilynskyj saw many of those stars come and go. 

“We’d see all these people come through the doors and they’d be like mates, and then they’d go on to become stars!” she said.  

Her friend Donna Sidders added: “So many actors came out of this place. Without it, where would the next generation go?”

Local building surveyor Jay Varsani agreed.

He’d visited the theatre several times to see his young daughter perform before the theatre closed. 

“There’s so much talent in Oldham,” Jay said.

"They need to get out and explore.”

With big projects planned to bring together local drama workshops and the theatre production firm once the venue has reopened, the future for the next generation of Oldham actors is looking brighter. 

But council leader Arooj Shah did add a note of warning to the festivities.

She wants residents to take a ‘cooperative’ approach to the Coliseum. 

“This needs to be a building we all own,” she said, suggesting that she herself had been guilty in the past of ‘taking what we have for granted’.

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