Maxine Peake hails local theatres as ‘lifeblood’ of communities

The actress was one of several speakers at a public meeting on Tuesday.
The actress was one of several speakers at a public meeting on Tuesday. The actress was one of several speakers at a public meeting on Tuesday.

Maxine Peake has hailed local theatres as the “lifeblood” of communities as she spoke at a public meeting to save the historic Oldham Coliseum in Greater Manchester.

The actress was one of several famous faces speaking at the event on Tuesday, following announcements by Arts Council England (ACE) that funding for the venue would be cut.

Representatives for ACE were invited to the meeting but did not attend, with a symbolic empty chair placed on stage.

Oldham Coliseum, which was built in 1885, now faces closure at the end of March.

The actress spoke at the public meeting on Tuesday (Equity/PA)

In a short speech, Peake, who is originally from Bolton in Greater Manchester, said watching theatre had given her “inspiration to be braver”.

“It’s all about community and it’s about what this theatre means to Oldham,” she told attendees.

“When I was a young actor, actors from Oldham gave me inspiration, it made me think ‘you can do it’.

“There was this amazing talent with this theatre in the centre of it… and there’s a saying ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’. It’s about what spaces like this give to the audiences that come in.”

She continued: “As humans we need to eat and we need to heat, we need a roof over our head but we also all need witnesses.

“Storytelling is so important to our being, to be in stories, to witness stories, to share our experiences.

“As we have a Government that is further and further dividing communities… theatres have become community centres.

“Even if I hadn’t been an actor, it gave me inspiration in my life to be braver, and watching theatre gives me inspiration to be braver.”

Oldham Council recently announced plans for a new theatre in the borough, reportedly costing £24 million, which is scheduled to open in 2026.

Maxine Peake speaks at public meeting to save Oldham Coliseum (Equity/PA)

“I feel very honoured to be able to speak tonight for this theatre, we have got to save it,” Peake said.

“They’ve got to pull their finger out, this is not good enough – a three-year wait? No way.

“Art should not be for the elite, it should be for everybody.”

Peake, who is known for TV programmes including Dinnerladies, Silk and Shameless, later led a chant of “hands off Oldham”.

The meeting took place at the historic venue on Tuesday (Equity/PA)

Other speakers included playwright Ian Kershaw, Tony Award-nominated actor Paul Hilton, Ackley Bridge actress Zoe Iqbal and Paul Liversey, north-west regional official for Equity – which organised the event.

“While Oldham Council’s recommitment to building a new theatre is positive news, it still does not address the immediate problems that come with the Coliseum’s closure on April 1,” Mr Liversey said in a statement.

“These include the redundancies faced by Equity members who work there, alongside the fact that until the opening of the new venue – scheduled for 2026, so at least three years from now – there will be no theatre in the borough.

“This will create a vacuum of arts access in Oldham, with the community left without a producing theatre to nurture the creation of new writing and performing arts, alongside proper union jobs.

“We call on Arts Council England and Oldham Council to release details about the arts provision planned for Oldham in the years before the opening of the new theatre and, if these do not include the existence of a producing theatre, to save Oldham Coliseum.”

ACE, which wrote to Equity last week to offer a separate meeting, said in a statement: “Oldham Coliseum is a well-loved fixture in the town and understandably many people have strong feelings about the future of the theatre.

“Oldham Coliseum Ltd has been facing financial and governance challenges for some time and as guardians of public money we could not invest in an organisation which we assessed to be such a high risk.

“Their funding continues until the end of March after which we’ve agreed additional support of nearly £360,000 to help them with decisions about the future.

“Arts Council England is absolutely committed to supporting arts and culture for the people of Oldham, and we’re standing by our commitment to invest £1.85 million in performing arts in the town and overall our investment in the arts in Oldham will be higher than ever before.

“The Oldham Coliseum building, which is reaching its natural end, is owned by Oldham Council and has never been part of our funding to the company.

“We are fully behind the plans the council shared today for a new performing space that will be informed by the legacy of the Oldham Coliseum and which will ensure there’s brilliant theatre in Oldham for people to enjoy for years to come.”