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Campaigners call for historic Oldham theatre venue to be reopened, claiming planned replacement will be too small for a producing company.

Save Oldham Coliseum campaigners outside the theatre holding banners and balloons
The flash mob coincided with what would have been the opening day of OCT's pantomime

Erin Wilson

A "flash mob" event was held outside the former home of Oldham Coliseum Theatre Company on Saturday (11 November) as part of a campaign to reopen the venue, which shut in March.

Led by the actors Julie Hesmondhalgh, John Henshaw and Annie Wallace, campaigners carried banners and balloons, with many wearing pantomime costumes, on what would have been the opening day of OCT's annual festive show.

Speaking to BBC Radio Manchester ahead of the event, Hesmondhalgh, who started her career at the Coliseum, said the aim was to "start a new positive conversation".


"Beautiful buildings matter to towns, especially to struggling small northern towns, and arts and culture matter massively to small struggling northern towns as well.

"It brings people together, it brings money into the town in terms of people visiting, using bars, restaurants, hotels - but more than that, it's something about the spirit of a town that has a place for them to go.”

In March, the Coliseum cancelled all its forthcoming performances, including its pantomime of Sleeping Beauty, which had already gone on sale. The decision followed the organisation's removal from ACE's National Portfolio as part of funding decisions announced in November.

Oldham Coliseum had previously received £600,000 a year from ACE.  A report by Action Together into the root causes of the unsuccessful bid to ACE found there was a perceived reluctance from OCT to "engage with the emerging vision" for a new theatre in the town, first proposed in 2015 after concerns about the condition of the original building. 

Oldham Council, which owns the OCT, said that the Fairbottom Street site was "riddled with asbestos", with walls at risk of falling down, and the cost of repair work was too expensive.

A producing theatre

A week after the theatre’s closure, Oldham Council announced it would push ahead witha delayed project to build the new venue, predicted to cost around £24.5m and open in 2026, using funding from ACE to help develop it.

Hesmondhalgh said that despite the plans, the town still needed a producing house that would originate work rather than just receive outside shows. 

"This new theatre will just be an arts centre for visiting small companies, musicians, tribute bands, comedians," she said.

"It can't exist as a producing theatre, and that is a precious thing."

Jewel in the crown

A report commissioned by OCT this year into the condition of the former building and the cost and complexity of reopening the venue as a working theatre concluded that the theatre could be reopened at a capital cost of approximately £150,000.

Speaking to freelance journalist Erin Wilson, who was at Saturday's flash mob, Hesmondhalgh said: "This is the jewel in the crown of this town.

"It's what it means to the town, and I think there's a way of preserving this and saving the auditorium and then building something beautiful and grand that will serve the people of Oldham for the next 138 years."

A headshot of Mary Stone