Last night at Oldham Coliseum: a joyful, funny and furious farewell
In the end, if indeed it is the end (many on stage would have you believe it isn’t), the final curtain came down shortly before 11pm on Friday. The show was some distance from being polished, but it was surely one of the most emotional in the 138-year history of the Oldham Coliseum.
Five minutes after the final bow from the cast, pulled together in a matter of days, the audience in the sold-out auditorium continued to applaud each other, as requested by the artistic director, Chris Lawson. Those in the stalls looked to the circle, the circle looked back, people made eye contact and applauded in recognition of an act of communion.
It was pure theatre.
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Encore was the final show on the stage of the Coliseum after Arts Council England announced it would be withdrawing its £1.8m funding of the venue. ACE said it would still invest £1.85m in Oldham, but it would not go to the Coliseum after expressing concerns over its maintenance and previous leadership.
Encore was at turns joyful, angry and sad – always defiant and always accompanied by tears.
It opened with blisteringly funny turns from the comedians Justin Moorhouse and Steve Royle, a Britain’s Got Talent runner-up, along with a performance of Up On the Roof by Liz Carney. Anyone familiar with the variety shows that were once a staple of northern working men’s clubs will have felt at ease. This audience understood the vernacular.
The evening was a tribute to work previously seen at the Coliseum, but also to the potential that was being lost with this closure. So it was appropriate that a veteran of the stage such as Royle was followed by The Final Curtain, written and performed by the theatre’s Young Rep Company. Of course it wasn’t to the same standard as the big theatre beasts Maxine Peake and Christopher Eccleston, on stage in the second act, but that was the point: neither were those two, once. The funny and clever murder mystery Macbeth was full of young potential that finds itself suddenly homeless in Oldham.
The performances were punctuated by speeches from Lawson and his two predecessors as artistic director, Kevin Shaw and Kenneth Alan Taylor, each with heartfelt and heartbreaking stories about why the theatre mattered. The common theme: community.
The community arrived on stage to sing us out of the first act with an amateur company rendition of One More Day. The song has surely never felt like such a proclamation for a reprieve.
At the interval, Anne Slater, 79, from Failsworth, proudly said that her grandchildren had been in the pantomime for years. “This place is like my second home,” she said.
Joan Tomlinson, 83, from Oldham, said: “You wouldn’t be able to print what I think about this place closing. You go to Manchester, to the Palace, to go to the theatre, but this isn’t ‘going to the theatre’; this is our Coliseum.”
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The emotion swelled in the second act, as the famous trophy refusal scene from Brassed Off was performed with barely contained anger by William Travis, the Diggle Brass Band of Saddleworth at his back, followed by uncontained anger from Peake and Eccleston in a scene from a new version of I, Daniel Blake.
By the time Clara Darcy gave us one final, invective-filled speech about what the closure meant, it was time for that special moment when Lawson requested one final round of applause – not for the performance, but for the theatre of it all.