The Guardian view on theatres in crisis: a moment to take stock

Pity the poor Oldham Coliseum. This venerable regional theatre has for some years now been trapped in a push-me-pull-you of ambition versus resources, culminating this week in a decision to cancel all shows from the end of March. The immediate reason is Arts Council England’s decision last November to strike it from the National Portfolio, denying it the £615,182-a-year grant on which it was relying from April. But behind this crisis lies a longer-term struggle to keep running at full throttle in a 138-year-old building that is no longer fit for purpose.

Oldham is one of the areas identified as a priority for investment under the government’s levelling up agenda. So it is particularly ironic that one of the shows the Coliseum has cancelled is a touring co-production based on Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake: a roar of rage about the betrayal of the northern working-class projected through the story of a joiner who is failed by the welfare state after a heart attack renders him unable to work.

The theatre’s problems are both specific and indicative of those facing many old playhouses, including that other Coliseum in London, home to the English National Opera; problems that have been compounded by the fallout from 12 years of austerity and two of pandemic.

Since opening as a circus in 1885 in what was then a wealthy cotton town, the Oldham Coliseum has been dismantled and moved lock, stock and barrel to make way for a market, has been a music hall, a cinema and a repertory theatre where, up until 1978, former stalwarts of its two-weekly rep made up half the cast of television’s Coronation Street.

A £2m facelift in 2012 could not make good its shortcomings. An ambitious local authority project to give the company its own purpose-built venue as part of a sparkly new cultural quarter fell through in 2018. A more modest scheme to move it to an old post office and Quaker meeting house is still in the early planning stages.

There is a general problem with balancing the competing demands of maintenance and innovation in poorly- and well-served areas that are often geographically close (even London has five priority places, where cultural provision has historically been low). Ten miles down the road from Oldham, in Manchester, a classy new cultural centre, Factory International, is due to open later this year. As a pin-up for a previous Tory government’s northern powerhouse project, the Factory has not had to negotiate the gear-grindings of local and central government patronage, which is the fate of so many established building-based companies.

The money that the Coliseum would have got from the Arts Council is, at least, ringfenced for Oldham. It’s a question of where it goes, and when. The theatre’s do-or-die gesture is a challenge to national and local government to negotiate a joined-up way through, not in three years’ time but right now. Crucially, everyone needs to be clear what it is that needs saving. The sentimental attachment to old playhouses can end up obscuring the fact that it’s not bricks and mortar that ultimately matter, but jobs, creativity and communities.