The show must go on, but with a significant lack of funding

The Greater Manchester theatre scene is famous. The first permanent theatre to open was the Theatre Royal back in 1845, which on two sites has since been a bingo hall, a night club, and a cinema. The things those walls must have seen. 

Since then, venues like the Palace, the Opera House, the Royal Exchange, and a whole host of smaller (but equally incredible) indie venues have continued to thrive across the city region. We do theatre, and we do it well. 

the cut will inevitably have an impact on the theatre's resources and development plans

If we’re talking about the stars of stage and screen that’ve passed through Manchester, it’s a who’s who of jazz hands, fishnets, and award nominees. Think Charles Dickens, Judy Garland, Spike Milligan, Ralph Fiennes, Stan Laurel, Moscow City Ballet, Angela Lansbury, Charlie Chaplin, John Thaw, Craig Revel Horwood in drag. The list goes on and includes everyone of note who ever trodden the boards in these islands. 

However, the future of Greater Manchester’s theatre scene hangs in the balance, as recent funding decisions made by Arts Council England (ACE) have left epochal venues such as Oldham Coliseum and Hope Mill Theatre in an increasingly uncertain situation. 

Oldham Coliseum Theatre
The Coliseum is unsure about its future after ACE rejection Image: Oldham Coliseum

An old giant

Earlier this month, the ACE decided to reject a near £1.84 million three year funding application from the Oldham Coliseum. The Coliseum relies on a “levelling up” budget to construct its business model and future programme. 

As the theatre’s chief executive, Susan Wildman, has explained, the team “understand the pressures that ACE faces in supporting as many organisations as possible”, and they appreciate the funding they have already received from the council throughout the years. The present ACE decision is being treated as critical.

Oldham Coliseum is 137 years old. It’s one of the oldest theatres still operating in Britain today, and the Guardian deemed the venue “an example of a vibrant regional theatre punching above its weight” in a five star review of its production of Chicago back in 2013. It’s a cultural and educational charity that works with over 150,000 individuals a year, and as actor Julie Hesmondhalgh explained to Confidentials earlier this year, venues like this prove that “there’s a rich pool of talent that exists here”. 

The Almighty Sometimes Ret Julie Hesmondhalgh Renne In Rehearsals Image By Manuel Harlan
Julie Hes is ready to stand up for one of Manchester's leading theatres Image: Manuel Harlan

Hesmondhalgh recently joined Equity Union members outside of the Arts Council offices in Manchester, and fronted the protest against plans to cut the theatre’s funding. The cuts have been described as “devastating”, and to receive a blow like this after a period of immense uncertainty surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic is ruinous. 

In the official statement on the Coliseum's website, it is made clear that "Oldham is listed as a ‘Levelling Up for Culture’ place", meaning that the theatre should "retain the support of Arts Council England (ACE) as a National Portfolio Organisation delivering their Let’s Create strategy". However the Coliseum’s application to remain in the portfolio was unsuccessful, and the theatre is now having to "look again at how it will move forward."

Oldham Coliseum Independent Theatres In Manchester 2022
The Coliseum is an undeniable cultural workhorse Image: Oldham Coliseum

Doing it all, and then some

In the time since the Coliseum reopened on 24 June 2021, following the lockdowns and restrictions caused by Covid-19, the institution has staged over 400 performances, produced five plays, welcomed nine visiting companies, worked with 948 young people, 825 adults, and 1,776 community members and families. The venue has also welcomed 367 people to 17 workshops, mixers and performances for its annual Cultivate Festival for theatre makers.

It's been doing it all, and then some. 

As Artistic Director Chris Lawson emphasises, "We are determined to continue delivering our programme of shows, learning, and opportunities as much as possible and we are surveying the options available to us." The team are determined to ensure the Coliseum continues to thrive, "even under the most difficult circumstances". 

Backstage Dressing Rooms At Hope Mill Theatre 2022 Pollard Street Manchester
Hope Mill are also having to come up with a back-up plan Image: Hope Mill Theatre

Not just Oldham

Unsurprisingly, Arts Council England received a record-breaking number of applications for its 2023-26 Investment Programme. This meant that, as with the Coliseum, institutions and venues such as the English National Opera, Cheek by Jowl theatre company, the Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme, and Action Hero have also been neglected in the ACE’s national portfolio for the next three years. Several of these institutions and organisations received over one hundred thousand pounds worth of funding in previous years. 

A second Manc-based powerhouse, Hope Mill Theatre, also failed to receive funding from ACE this time around. 

Joe And Will From Hope Mill Theatre Manchester Pollard St
Joseph and Will are "devastated" about funding rejections Image: Phil Tragen Photography

We caught up with the Joseph and Will from Hope Mill in July of this year, and if there was ever a “What’s On” page to get you all excited about the arts in Manchester, it belongs to this New Islington gem. 

The pair touched on their plans to increase the number of educational development schemes provided by the theatre, and proudly explained, “we like to think that we’ll always have something for everyone.” 

However, like Oldham Coliseum, Hope Mill relies heavily on funding from ACE, and the cut will inevitably have an impact on the theatre's resources and development plans. The theatre recently took to Twitter to say, "We are devastated that we have been unsuccessful in receiving NPO Status. This would have been a lifeline to continue our growth, outreach & bringing high quality theatre to the NW. At least we have our Fairy Godmother to help us! #NothingIsImpossible". 

The Headless Horseman Is Coming To Oldham As Part Of A Halloween Production Of Sleepy Hollow At Oldham Coliseum
Just cop some tickets and help our your local arts venue Image: Oldham Coliseum

Buy a bloody ticket

For theatre-goers, performers, directors, set designers, part-time staff, and everyone from leading ladies to lighting technicians, theatres like this are a lifeline for the arts and culture scene in and around Greater Manchester. 

Keeping their chins and red velvet chairs up, Oldham Coliseum is, in the meantime, showing its annual award-winning pantomime. This year it's Robin Hood. Chris Lawson is also asking that people "Come and spend a few hours with us this festive season and celebrate the Coliseum’s phenomenal contribution to Oldham and the wider theatre ecology.” The show must, as always, go on. 

As for Hope Mill, this year the venue has worked towards raising the money needed to allocate 1,000 free tickets to young people across Greater Manchester, and The European Premiere of Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella the Musical is currently in its third week of a six-week-long stint. 

For venues like this, ticket sales are now more important than ever, and both remain dedicated to putting on a programme full of leading musicals, plays, showcases and good old fashion theatre. 

Hope Mill Theatre Entrance Pollard Street Manchester 2022
Get on the tram to Hope Mill to watch Cinderella, it's for a good cause Image: Hope Mill Theatre

Next steps

Oldham Coliseum has assured Confidentials "we are working on the next steps and will have a clearer answer in a couple of weeks’ time after some key meetings with partners." 

The setbacks caused by a lack of funding at smaller venues are far from subtle, and theatres up and down the country will be forced to re-evaluate their plans and programmes in the coming years. Both Hope Mill and the Coliseum remain optimistic - for now. The message is go and see a panto, or book some tickets for a theatre date in the new year. 

Confidentials will post any further updates once we are provided with additional information. 

Oldham Coliseum, Fairbottom St, Oldham OL1 3SW.

Hope Mill Theatre113 Pollard St, Manchester M4 7JA

Header Image: Oldham Coliseum

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