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 pantomime 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 a variety of 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.

History

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.

Past performers include:

  • Judith Barker
  • Dora Bryan
  • Charlie Chaplin
  • Minnie Driver
  • Ralph Fiennes
  • Dame Thora Hird
  • Anne Kirkbride
  • Kathy Staff
  • Eric Sykes
  • Claire Sweeney
  • Kenneth Alan Taylor

Timeline

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