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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Oldham Arena: Historic theater plays final act after funding cuts


  • Ian Youngs
  • Entertainment and Arts Reporter

Image Source, Andrew Billington


“Chicago” at Oldham Arena in 2013 received a five-star review from The Guardian

A stirring performance and evening of tribute led by actors Maxine Peake and Christopher Ecclestone drew the final curtain on Oldham’s Coliseum Theater after more than 135 years.

Hundreds of spectators packed the venue to watch the last spectacular performance.

It closed after its funding to Arts Council England was withdrawn.

Ecclestone said he wouldn’t be an actor if it weren’t for places like Oldham Arena. “They’re disappearing. So what happens to the next generation?”

Image Source, Oldham Stadium


Oldham City Council said the theater building, which dates back to 1887, “has come to an end”

The stadium has been a training ground for many stars – from Bernard Cribbins, who joined at the age of 14 and stayed for seven years, to Jean Alexander (Hilda Ogden), Barbara Nocker in Coronation Street Adams (Rita Sullivan) and William Roach (Ken Barlow).

Others on the board include Happy Valley’s Sarah Lancashire, Doctor Foster’s Sulan Jones, Doctor Who’s new sidekick Millie Gibson, and Dragon House’s Olivia Cooke.

“It’s a celebration, but it’s also a heartbreaking night as far as I’m concerned,” former artistic director Kenneth Alan Taylor, who also attended the 320 Coliseum show, told the sold-out crowd on Friday.

“Think of all the actors who started their careers [here]. There will be no Coronation Street now [without it]”

Image Source, Getty Images


Coronation Street legend Pat Phoenix performing at Oldham Arena in the 1960s

On the closing night, Ecclestone and Peek performed footage from a new adaptation of Ken Loach’s award-winning film “I, Daniel Blake,” originally scheduled for this year’s It was shown on the stage of the stadium in the summer.

Former Doctor Who star Ecclestone, from Salford, used to attend performances at the gym when he was young.

“I think it’s tragic that Oldham and its borough have lost a theater at a time when we should be upgrading,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“Last night was about starting a campaign to build a new theater in Oldham and say, that’s not going to happen anywhere else.”

video subtitles,

Oldham Stadium closure is an attack on the arts – Maxine Peake

Snippets from past shows were also performed – from the theater’s top-grossing production, Brassed Off, with a 15-piece brass band; to Dreamers, a 2015 musical named after the notorious local nightclub.

Its popular pantomime had a final hurrah as 15 actors in full costume performed a pop medley, culminating in a hilarious and unexpectedly poignant rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.”

Image Source, Oldham Stadium


Sue Devaney returns to reprise role as Gracie Fields from 2016 production of Our Gracie

Its Youth Theater also staged a show about the venue’s famous ghost – an actor named Harold Norman, who appeared on stage during a performance of Macbeth in 1947 was stabbed to death.

Image Source, Oldham Stadium


Clara Darcy was the last to perform on the stadium stage

The night’s performers then gathered on stage for a standing ovation that lasted several minutes after the final curtain fell.

Darcy told the BBC beforehand: “It seems a bit incomprehensible that the Coliseum wouldn’t exist as it used to, because it’s such a remarkable and very supportive theatre.”

After Oldham, her show went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is now being adapted into a TV series for Radio 4.

“They really showed the passion and support our production needed, and it wouldn’t have toured and certainly not picked up on broadcast if it hadn’t started in stadiums.”

Image Source, Getty Images


Crowd coming out of Oldham Stadium in 1946

Shorelle Hepkin starred in five plays, directed her last youth drama, and met her co-star at the Coliseum. “It literally changed my life as an actor and as a person,” she said.

“Anyone you talk to who has worked in the building will probably say it’s the most welcoming building you can walk in and it really feels like home.”

“Major risks”

The venue receives more than £600,000 a year from the Arts Council of England (ACE), but became the largest theater outside London to lose its subsidy in a revamp announced in November.

ACE said it had identified “key risks and concerns surrounding its finances, governance and leadership”.

ACE has set aside the same amount of funding – £1.85m over the next three years – to fund other cultural events in Greater Manchester.

It is also backing plans for a new £24.5m theater in Oldham City Council, which it describes as a “creative and cultural venue with multiple uses”, due to open in 2026.

Image Source, Oldham Council Handouts


New theater scheduled for completion in 2026

“The current building is reaching the end of its useful life and performers, crew and audiences deserve better,” said council leader Amanda Chadderton.

In fact, the council said the current building had asbestos problems, poor access and cramped back and front facilities. A £2 million refurbishment in 2012 aimed to keep it in use for another ten years.

However, there is some skepticism about how long it will take to build a new venue and what the outcome will be.

“I don’t want an arts center,” Taylor said Friday — as if those were dirty words — to cheers from the audience.

He and other supporters still have little hope of saving the current building.

“I’m not an architect, but I see old buildings being restored,” he continued. “They say the building is not fit for use. Let’s fix it!”


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