“In seeking to capture the key characteristics of the organisation, I would say the Coliseum is a new kind of people’s theatre. It is truly ‘owned’ by its audiences, its artists and its participants. They are passionately proud of it – what it does for the people of Oldham and the reputation of the town. Most importantly, perhaps, the management are acutely aware of the responsibilities this gives them to deliver the very best work for all of their constituencies. They do not let them down.”
Ian Tabbron, Senior Relationship Manager, Arts Council England
“A full house at Oldham Coliseum – a theatre that lives in the shadow of big neighbours – feels utterly different from one [at a larger venue], which gets much more attention, but cannot match the unbuttoned glee of a local audience at the Coliseum.”
Paul Allen, The Guardian
The history of Oldham Coliseum Theatre has its roots in the Oldham of Victorian England, making it one of the oldest theatres in Britain still in operation today. The theatre is also widely considered as the true home of traditional pantomime. The theatre produces a new festive production each year attracting audiences of over 35,000 from across the North West of England, as well as further afield.
The Coliseum dates back to 1885 when it began life as the Grand American Circus and Hippodrome. The theatre was situated in the heart of Oldham’s town centre, at the height of the cotton industry. This made Oldham famous all over the world – it boasted the largest number of cotton spindles in the world and was producing eight billion yards of cloth a year at the industry’s peak in 1912. The theatre – known then as the Colosseum – was surrounded by almost a dozen other theatres entertaining the town’s booming population. In the 21st century, the award winning Coliseum is now the only surviving professional producing theatre in the town.
The Coliseum’s stage has seen countless performers over the years from comedy greats Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel to movie stars such as Ralph Fiennes and Minnie Driver at the beginnings of their careers. Many early cast members of Manchester’s most famous television export, and the world’s longest running soap opera, Coronation Street, first broadcast in December 1960, were drawn from the Coliseum’s repertory company.
Oldham Coliseum Theatre is one of the most established and well attended venues in the North West where it produces eight in-house shows each year. It is also a receiving house for touring productions, visiting companies and special one-night events.
Oldham Coliseum Theatre received a c£2 million facelift in 2012, with a much needed renovation to improve seating, heating and ventilation, and its front of house facilities so the venue could meet the expectations of contemporary theatre-goers and meet Health and Safety standards.
The Main Auditorium, with its three levels of Stalls, Circle and Upper Circle, has a capacity of 524 seats. The theatre also has a Studio with a more intimate capacity of 50 seats. The inhouse and touring productions seen in the Main House each year offer a balanced programme of drama – from both established and new writers – to comedy and musicals, as well as the theatre’s annual pantomime.
Established in 1885, the Coliseum – then the Colosseum – began its life as a circus on Henshaw Street.
However, when Oldham Council demanded that site for use as a market – now Tommyfield market – its owner and builder, Thomas Whittaker, was forced to relocate two years later. The entire wooden building was dismantled and moved plank by plank to its current site on Fairbottom Street.
After becoming an established location for entertainment, the building was bought by Peter Yates, of Yates’ Wine Lodges’ fame, in 1903. The venue was then transformed, and for the next 28 years, it became known as a popular music hall visited by the stars of the time.
Following a brief spell as a cinema in the early 1930s, the theatre closed and its furniture and fittings were sold off.
In 1938, the building was given a new lease of life when it was reopened as the Oldham Repertory Theatre under the direction of Douglas Emery. At this point the theatre had been stripped of the majority of its interior, including the floorboards, and as a result the auditorium actually had an earth floor.
Due to licensing issues at the time (the building was primarily made of wood and had no fire escapes), the venue could only operate as a private club with a strict rule that only members could attend to see plays.
The theatre soon developed a reputation for the quality of its shows and performances. By the end of the 1950s the resident repertory actors’ talents were so acclaimed that this led to many of them being lured away from the stage towards the glamorous television industry then in its infancy.
Because of their authentic Northern voices, many Oldham Rep actors, including Jean Alexander (Hilda Ogden) and Pat Phoenix (Elsie Tanner), became cast members for Coronation Street. Other Oldham Rep cast members who became main characters in Coronation Street include: Barbara Knox (Rita Sullivan), Roy Barraclough (Alec Gilroy), William Roache (Ken Barlow), Anne Kirkbride (Deirdre Barlow).
The Oldham Repertory Theatre lasted until 1978 when it was reconstituted as the Oldham Coliseum Theatre. For over 70 years the Coliseum has been a home of producing theatre and has worked with many successful and innovative artists.
The Coliseum is now one of only 32 regular producing theatres in England, offering employment and a creative forum to actors, directors, designers, writers and technicians. It is also the only professional producing theatre in the historic cotton-mill town of Oldham.
1885 – Myers’ New Grand American Circus and Hippodrome was built in Henshaw Street.
1887 – The wooden theatre is dismantled and moved to Fairbottom Street – it is advertised initially as The Grand Circus and then re-branded as The Colosseum. it has an original capacity of 3,000.
1903 – The Colosseum is sold to Peter Yates of Yates’ Wine Lodges’ fame – it specialises in variety shows and music hall for the next 28 years.
1931 – The theatre is converted into a cinema, it closes nine months later and all furnishings, fittings, stage machinery and sets are sold off.
1938 – Oldham Repertory Theatre opens under the direction of Douglas Emery and after 12 months moves to the Coliseum, renovating the derelict theatre. During World War Two, the Coliseum hosts celebrated London companies Sadler’s Wells Opera and the Old Vic.
1947 – Anthony Oakley, playing MacDuff, accidently stabs Harold Norman, playing Macbeth, in a production of The Scottish Play. Norman dies of his injuries on 27 February.
1959 – Carl Paulsen is appointed as Director of Productions, he remains with the Rep until his death in 1973, aged 47. His funeral is a major civic event in the town.
1968 – The theatre moves from weekly to two-weekly rep. with production of Suddenly Last Summer, featuring Pat Phoenix.
1978 – Oldham Rep is re-constituted as Oldham Coliseum Theatre and opens under the direction of Kenneth Alan Taylor with a production of The Revenge of the Werewolf.
1996 – Leading actress Siân Phillips stars as Marlene – in a musical of the same name – written by Pam Gems. The show then transfers to London’s West End and New York’s Broadway.
2002 – Kevin Shaw takes over as Artistic Director.
February 2012 – The Coliseum closes for nine months to undergo major refurbishment costing c£2m.
October 2012 – The newly renovated theatre reopens with The Importance of Being Earnest.
December 2016 – Through Oldham Council a grant of £7.1m from Arts Council England was confirmed as investment towards a new state-of-the-art theatre to be located on Oldham’s Union Street. The new location will place the Coliseum in the heart of the town’s burgeoning cultural quarter besides Gallery Oldham, Oldham Library and a new Arts and Heritage Centre (due to open in 2019).