Historic theatre saved after closure U-turn

Julie Hesmondhalgh holding up a road sign saying "Coliseum Theatre" in front of the venue's boarded-up main entrance
Actor Julie Hesmondhalgh has been campaigning to reopen the theatre's doors [BBC]

Oldham's Coliseum theatre, which closed amid an outcry in 2023 after more than 135 years, is to reopen after a successful campaign to save it, led by actor Julie Hesmondhalgh.

The historic venue, which has been boarded up since last April, will have a £10m refurbishment in order to open its doors again in time for Christmas 2025.

Hesmondhalgh, known for roles in TV shows like Coronation Street and Mr Bates vs the Post Office, said she was "absolutely over the moon" at the decision.

The Coliseum was forced to close after Arts Council England withdrew its funding because of concerns over its management, while the local council said the building was "no longer fit for purpose".

Oldham Borough Council planned to replace it with a new, smaller £24m theatre, but has now scrapped that idea in favour of refurbishing the existing building.

"It's been a battle, but it's been a battle of hearts and minds because Oldham people love this place," Hesmondhalgh told BBC News. "They love it as a theatre but they love it also as a place that is owned by them."

A workman installing a poster saying "Oldham Coliseum has been saved by you!"
Posters were put up outside the venue on Monday proclaiming the news [BBC]

Hesmondhalgh, who recently played the partner of real-life Post Office campaigner Alan Bates in the ITV drama, said she was "in a little bit of a state of disbelief" that the Coliseum campaign had worked.

She paid tribute to the local council for being "willing to listen to the residents of its town and having the humility to change their minds".

Hesmondhalgh and her husband, Coronation Street scriptwriter Ian Kershaw, were among 15 to 20 locals who have held fortnightly campaign meetings in a function room above an Italian restaurant around the corner from the theatre.

A string of stars who have acted at the Coliseum in the past lent their support by appearing in a short film earlier this year - including Suranne Jones, Christopher Eccleston, Maxine Peake, Mina Anwar, Lisa Riley, Siobhan Finneran and Dame Sian Phillips.

Exterior of Oldham Coliseum theatre, with discoloured ageing paint
The venue has been empty and boarded up for more than a year [BBC]

Longtime audience member Jane Barker, 58, was also part of the Save Oldham Coliseum campaign group.

"I've lived in Oldham all my life and I think the Coliseum is a really important place," she said.

"It brings visitors to the town. Oldham's had a really tough time. The town centre is struggling and we need our theatre back to bring bring visitors back into the town who will use the restaurants and bars before they come in to see a show.

"And the Coliseum itself has such a brilliant reputation for the quality of its productions."

Council leader Arooj Shah said locals had "an affection for this building that you can't ignore", and that she "wanted to listen to the people".

The £10m pledged for the refurbishment is much less than the £24m earmarked for the new venue.

However, the council said the two projects were different and their costs could not be compared, and Cllr Shah said the decision was not "about money".

"It's more about where people's emotions are and what they feel connected to, and I think you have to acknowledge that," she said.

Interior of Oldham Coliseum theatre showing decorative balcony
Seats were removed from the stalls after the theatre shut in April 2023 [BBC]
Interior of Oldham Coliseum theatre showing empty box office and foyer with red and white safety tape
Work is due to start so the venue can stage a pantomime at Christmas 2025 [BBC]

The council had previously said the old building had numerous problems including asbestos, poor accessibility and cramped backstage and front-of-house facilities.

However, concerns were raised that the proposed new venue would be much smaller than the old Coliseum and therefore less financially viable, and would not have the facilities to stage full-scale shows.

The Coliseum launched the careers of numerous actors over the years, including a string of Coronation Street stars; Bernard Cribbins, who joined at the age of 14 in 1943; and Doctor Who companion Millie Gibson and House of the Dragon's Olivia Cooke, who appeared there as members of Oldham Theatre Workshop.

New Culture Secretary Lisa Nandy described the venue as "a shining example of the kind of cultural assets that local communities are so committed to protecting".

"The decision by Oldham Council to invest in the refurbishment of Oldham Coliseum will ensure future generations can continue to be entertained and inspired at this iconic venue," she said.

An Arts Council England spokesperson said: “While the former Oldham Coliseum building belongs to Oldham Council, and isn't funded by the Arts Council, we know what a well-loved landmark it is, and recognise its link to a strong history of theatre in the town, and the work the campaign group has been doing to preserve it.

"We welcome the ongoing work of partners in Oldham to develop a sustainable future for theatre and performance in the borough, and will continue to work with Oldham Council and partners to make sure there is a wide range of arts and theatre for audiences in Oldham to enjoy."