Once empty and decaying, the Grade II listed treasure is back in business
Its next door neighbour, Hulme Hippodrome, was recently named as one of the UK’s most endangered buildings - and the Playhouse Theatre very nearly suffered a similar fate.
Used as everything from BBC recording studio to black cultural centre, this Grade II listed treasure has hosted a roster of iconic names since its opening in 1902; Nina Simone, Les Dawson and The Beatles to name but a few.
Yet the turn of last century saw it empty and decaying. Briefly reopened as a church, it would be two decades before the Playhouse was again used as for live performance.
Relaunched as a community arts centre by NIAMOS - a collective of artists, musicians and local residents - in 2018, the historic venue is celebrating a milestone this month as it stages its first theatre show in 25 years.
Starring a local community cast, as well as drag royalty Lill and some of Manchester’s finest alternative talent, Snow White’s Privilege is a scandalously alternative panto filled with feuding royals, fake news and a mansplaining prince. Proudly rude and crude, it turns a spotlight on marginalised voices that are often unheard in festive productions.
NIAMOS’ community producer Margo Riley said: “Theatre is made around hard hitting ideas, however it usually doesn't involve performers directly affected by the issues and themes. We want to change that and showcase talent and creativity birthed in these communities with a mixture of home-grown and professional artists.”
Written by local writer Elmi Ali, Snow White’s Privilege is a modern, Mancunian sequel to the famous fairytale - set in the years after Snow White’s happily ever after. In a time of ever-widening power divide between the many and the privileged few, it’s a rallying cry to turn the status quo on its head. Boldly and hilariously, this panto points the finger at those with privilege and gives power to those that have none.
Snow White’s Privilege runs at the Playhouse (now NIAMOS), Chichester Road, Hulme, M15 5EU from 19th-21st December - tickets from £6 at skiddle.com
The Playhouse Theatre
Originally known as the Hulme Hippodrome, the Playhouse Theatre opened on 6th October 1902 along with its next door neighbour Grand Junction Theatre (confusingly, this is now known as Hulme Hippodrome). While both were once part of W.H. Broadhead's theatrical empire, and even connected by an arcade, two two theatres have since met different fates – earlier this year, the Victorian Society named Hulme Hippodrome as one of the UK’s most endangered buildings.
But back to the Playhouse, which has its own tumultuous and fascinating history. Initially used as a cinema, it briefly hosted live theatre before being purchased by the BBC as a radio and TV recording studio in 1956. There, producer James Casey hosted shows for comedians like Les Dawson, Ken Dodd, Roy Castle, Hinge and Bracket, Des O'Connor and Mike Yarwood - not to mention musical icons like the Beatles. Famously, the band’s first ever recorded radio was at the Playhouse, in March 1962.
The Playhouse Theatre was also later used as a studio by the Northern Dance Orchestra, with Johny Roadhouse as the band master.
In 1987 the BBC relocated and, in 1991, the theatre reopened as the Nia Centre; a performance space for the celebration of black artistes and culture. One of the largest organisations of its kind in Europe, it launched with a performance by soul superstar Nina Simone.
The venue retained its prestige throughout much of the nineties; hosting concerts with legends such as Hugh Masakela, Ziggy Marley, Aphix Twin, Fela Kuti and Zion Train alongside a host of local promoters. It also showcased many black theatre companies including the Talawa Theatre Company, the Black Theatre Co-operative, the Blue Mountain Theatre, the African Peoples Theatre, the African Players, the Open Door Theatre and the Umoja Theatre.
Sadly, funding and planning issues eventually led to the company’s liquidation. The theatre closed in 1997 and, despite the building’s Grade II listed status, stood empty and decaying for many years.
Eventually it was tenanted by the Fountainhead Church; by May 2013, they had cleaned and rewired the venue, repaired the roof and reopened as the Fountain Gate Chapel. However, in 2017 it was announced that the Playhouse would be put up for auction and it was sold to C&R Properties the following year.
That was when current residents NIAMOS (and friends of Fountainhead Church) began to rent the venue, reopening it as a community-led space for arts and culture.
A group of artists, musicians and local residents, NIAMOS stands for ‘not in a month of Sundays’ - an ironic reference to the enormous task of refurbishing and maintaining the Playhouse (now known as NIAMOS).
The collective opened the theatre, still under renovation, with a Nina Simone tribute night in 2018 and have since hosted everything from film screenings to orchestral shows, circus to cabaret - working with the likes of Manchester International Festival and RNCM. Other events include a royal wedding street party and even a fundraiser for the Windrush community, helping to pay for legal representation.
Much like Levy Library, NIAMOS operate a shared space; hosting both their own events and those of the local community, as well as outreach activities throughout the area. The venue also features a micro-brewery, music studio, kitchen and holistic wellbeing space for yoga and meditation.