Curtain Up at the Coliseum: A Homecoming Gala Evening

Oldham Coliseum Theatre

Sue Devaney, Catherine Kinsella, Nicola Bolton and Gemma Wardle in Curtain Up at the Coliseum Credit: Andrew Billington

The spectacular reopening production for Oldham Coliseum after several months of refurbishments and essential repairs—during which the company embarked on an adventurous programme of touring, productions in other local venues and its first outdoor show—had to be shelved at the last minute when the roof was found to be in a far worse state than was anticipated.

Although the first full production will now be the Coliseum's famous panto, the company was not to be done out of its grand reopening, and so artistic director Kevin Shaw put together this two-night run of a compilation show to celebrate 125 years of Coliseum productions, fronted by former artistic director Kenneth Alan Taylor. Performing the pieces are a small, versatile bunch of actor-musicians with some special guests.

Taylor opens by fishing for compliments on the new decor, saying, provocatively, it's "like the Royal Exchange but with real people". The whole building has been redecorated, but the most obvious change from the audience's perspective is in the auditorium, which has brand new seats which are far more comfortable than the old ones with more legroom, but there does appear to be a discrepancy between the height of the seats and that of the arm rests.

The central aisle has gone as well, so don't expect to get out quickly if you are sat in the middle as you could before, and the efficient new heating and air conditioning system was evident from the fact that we weren't sat shivering in our coats throughout the performance.

Taylor then becomes a Good Old Days-style compère, giving us a run-down of the theatre's history between verses of Fred Gibson's Lancashire music hall song "Reet Oop T'Mark" from the whole company. The rest of the show consists of excerpts from plays and musicals that have been performed at the theatre, plus a preview of one to come in the next season.

Play highlights are a scene from Kes by Barry Hines in which Adam Barlow reprises his role as Billy Caspar from 2010 with all 48 of the young performers who were originally in two teams and Kenneth Alan Taylor's moving monologue from Jimmy Chinn's A Different Way Home, originally performed by Roy Barraclough in 1997.

There are also excerpts from Mike Harding's Fur Coat and No Knickers (1980), Me Mam Sez by Barry Heath (1986 and 1998), The Road to Nab End by Wiliam Woodruff (2010) and—I agree with Taylor—too short an extract from this year's outdoor production Star Cross'd by Ian Kershaw, which I couldn't get to see.

There are sequences from fully-fledged musicals including The Rocky Horror Show for which the Coliseum obtained the rights to perform the first production outside London in 1981. This excerpt showed Catherine Kinsella and Gemma Wardle to be an excellent Columbia and Magenta respectively with a guest appearance from Jeffrey Longmore as Frank N Furter notable only for the fact that he took the trouble to go the whole hog with basque, suspenders and high heels just a week after collecting his bus pass.

The second act opens with a selection from Cy Coleman's wonderful score for Sweet Charity in which Gemma Wardle revisits her role as Charity Hope Valentine superbly, plus we get a glimpse of the Coliseum's Wizard of Oz, performed twice, thirty years apart, in 1974 and 2004.

The Coliseum has produced several popular jukebox musicals over the years, and here we get a selection of pop songs from Hold Tight It's 60s Night (1989 and 1991) and Good Golly Miss Molly (2004), plus the grand-daddy of the form (and still one of the greatest) Return to the Forbidden Planet by Bob Carlton, which crash-landed on Oldham in 2007.

The final category featured is plays in which music plays a strong part, and the highlight of these is undoubtedly a stunning, show-stopping performance from Sue Devaney in the title role of Piaf by Pam Gems singing, of course, "Non, je ne regrette rien". This play will be revived at the Octagon in Bolton next year where Devaney gave a memorable performance in the same director's last production, which invites speculation about their casting of the lead role...

There is another lovely piece from Brassed Off, which still holds the theatre's record for the best-selling non-panto show in the Coliseum's history when it was originally produced in 2005, featuring the lovely brass sounds of Oldham Band (Lees) with a very impressive but unnamed young soloist.

Other plays with music are Stepping Out by Richard Harris (1989 and 2011) and the forthcoming Blonde Bombshells of 1943 by Alan Plater, which was a major success for the Octagon a few years ago.

Finally, Julie Hesmondhalgh makes a guest appearance as a "Cain Dingle" (character from Emmerdale) obsessive fan in a great performance of a short comic monologue specially-written by Ian Kershaw with shades of Victoria Wood (but not quite up to that level).

Considering the fact that this was cobbled together at quite short notice, Shaw has put together a slick and enjoyable celebration of the theatre's past with a very talented and versatile ensemble (other members not mentioned above are Nicola Bolton, Kieran Buckeridge, Chris Grahamson and Adam Keast plus guest stars Shobna Gulati and Lisa George).

From where I was sat, the band seemed to lack a bit of power and was often drowned out by the vocals, especially noticeable in the rock and pop numbers, but this is a minor quibble for a great night out in Oldham.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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