In Haunt

Oh yes it is! The historic hidden venue of The Playhouse Theatre in Hulme will be staging its first show for 25 years this December – and under the title ‘Snow White’s Privilege’, this is certainly no ordinary Christmas panto. The Playhouse, now run by community co-operative NIAMOS, is no ordinary venue either – as it is within this very building on Chichester Road and Warwick Street (not too far at all from the modern Hulme ASDA!) that The Beatles made their radio debut to the nation, the likes of Ken Dodd and Les Dawson visited and Nina Simone performed![1]

The Playhouse

Snow White’s Privilege is set to be a lively alternative perspective on Christmas tradition, celebrating voices so often under-represented in festive features. Running in the Playhouse Theatre space of the NIAMOS Centre (formerly the Nia Centre) 19-21 December, themes including identity, ethnicity, Queerness and gender will all be explored… with plenty of music to boot! It seems like a fitting festive special for the vibrant theatre space, which NIAMOS has opened as a community-led effort, featuring local productions and workshops. (Image above: within The Playhouse space in May 2018)

Written by North-west based writer, director, facilitator and translator Elmi Ali (who is also alumni of Manchester Metropolitan University, now currently studying for a Masters there) Snow White’s Privilege offers ‘a Mancunian sequel to the age old fairy-tale set in the years after Snow White’s happily ever after’ – including everything from a foolish prince to feuding royals and fake news! Just as thoughtful as it is funny, Snow White’s Privilege will not shy away from questioning the status quo, crying out against corruption and celebrating oft-marginalised voices. He adds:

“Snow White's Privilege is, a more than a little bent out of shape, exploration of privilege pivoting on a very well known very traditional form. This alternative panto is set in, a post happily ever after, that is interrupted by intrusions from our contemporary media landscape. In this not so entirely upside-down world of AI systems and talk show Dwarf Queens, I hope the audience will be able to laugh at the absurdities on which our notions of privilege and power are so seriously hinged.”

It will be presented with a punch – starring much-loved drag queens, an array of alternative cabaret talent and local actors – directed by the inspiring Nuala Maguire. Having already presented and performed work at the likes of the Royal Exchange Theatre, Camden People's Theatre, Hope Mill Theatre here in Manchester and the Liverpool Everyman, Nuala’s directorial venture with Snow White’s Privilege is highly anticipated. She reflects:

“The show’s inspiration is a collaborative art form created by collaborative artists within a DIY venue. Within the show you have elements of visual art, traditional pantomime and cabaret, bringing new artists together from the local community and the arts scene in Manchester, including Albert's Schloss: Lill, Sal Maguire, Sally Smithson, NIAMOS resident artists, Islington Mill, Mark Jermyn and Lill, Amy Coney, Ali Michael, Evelyn Roberts and all a brilliant creative team. The venue is a really exciting site with oodles of stories, the show is alternative in as many ways as possible.”

By Jody Hartley

It certainly is a transformative tale for The Playhouse, as the inspiring use of the building by NIAMOS has been within a time that has seen it removed from the Theatres At Risk Register! A rather unassuming red-brick building on the outside, it is a haven of hidden history within... 

The Hulme Playhouse was built between 1901-1902 and originally known as the Hulme Hippodrome, opening on the 6 October 1902. It was joined by an arcade to what was then the neighbouring Grand Junction Theatre (it is this building that is now known as the Hulme Hippodrome, and still sadly lies empty, named earlier this year as one of the UK’s most endangered buildings according to The Victorian Society and is still on the Theatres At Risk Register), both designed by J.J. Alley[2]. The Playhouse during its days as the Hippodrome presented a range of variety acts, whilst next door The Grand Junction staged more dramatic shows (all part of W.H. Broadhead’s theatrical empire)[3].  If that wasn’t confusing enough, in 1905 the theatres then swapped names! The venue that is the focus of this article then went onto serve time as a cinema (under the name Junction Picture Theatre) and finally became The Playhouse in 1951: resuming use as a theatre space. The first show in the building under this name was The Happiest Days of Your Life in 1951[4] – yet it was before the 1960s the use of the building changed again, with it being bought by the BBC to use as a recording venue in 1956: The BBC Playhouse was born!

Who would have thought big stars of stage and screen gathered here in Hulme? In turn the site of many influential TV and radio recordings, the BBC Playhouse welcomed comedy stars such as Les Dawson, Des O'Connor and Ken Dodd. According to poet, comedy writer and former Coronation Street screenwriter Keith Hutson

"It's really great to see The Playhouse born again after twenty-five years in the showbiz afterlife! I remember, when it was a BBC studio, going to a recording of a Les Dawson show, I think in 1975. My uncle, who used to take me to many shows in the North, got us the tickets and it was the first time I'd seen Les Dawson, who I later wrote some material for - so it was a memorable experience for a young lad from Manchester!"

Musical icons came to record too, including The Beatles! The Playhouse was where The Beatles delivered their first ever recorded radio session as a band in 1962- making their national debut on the airwaves![5]

The musical connections don’t stop there. For some time the Northern Dance Orchestra (a band run by the BBC, featuring saxophonist Johnny Roadhouse amongst others, who lived in Moss Side for many years and also founded the much-loved music shop in his name on Oxford Road) also used the Playhouse space as a studio[6]. The BBC relocated in 1987. Yet this wasn’t the end of the road for The Playhouse!

Niamos

 In 1991 it reopened again as the Nia Centre; a space to celebrate black culture, arts and performance – one of the biggest centres of its kind in the UK at the time[7]. It also welcomed a range of diverse performing arts companies, including the Talawa Theatre Company, the Black Theatre Co-operative and the Blue Mountain Theatre, to give just some examples. The site of The Playhouse clearly is a place that has seen many historic moments, as Nina Simone even performed at the Nia Centre launch, with the venue continuing to host high-profile concerts and shows through much of the 1990s: a thriving place of diversity and discovery, with a capacity of up to 900.[8]

Yet it was when the Nia Centre faced funding and planning issues in the latter half of the decade, the theatre was forced to close – shutting its doors in 1997. It lay unused for a number of years, a Grade II relic packed with stories at the heart of Hulme.

As can be seen however, this is a building of many re-inventions. Fountainhead Church went on to acquire the space and from 2012 onwards, the Church and an inspiring largely-volunteer effort helped arrange for its extensive refurbishment… helping it towards its show suitability today. The building was also used for events, meetings and services, under the title of the Fountain Gate Chapel. The hard work of those involved, including a number of the congregation themselves, deserves recognition, involving at least four years hard work, with Seetex (the public service provider) coming on board in 2014 to offer some additional support to finish the project. The aim? As has been a running theme with The Playhouse space – community was a key consideration, with hopes to make building ready to host local groups, a community café and food bank.

Another historic musical moment was still to occur here during this time, as on the 11 June 2016 it was opened as the Playhouse Theatre for one day only, hosting Pete Best – the original drummer of The Beatles – on the same stage where he had been part of the band’s radio debut all the way back in 1962! Much more about this momentous occasion can be read at the highly-informative ArthurLloyd.co.uk website here.

Yet despite the church’s best efforts, the whole building faced being put up for auction – with the scheduled date being 18 May 2017. [9] It was then acquired by C&R Properties. So what would become of The Playhouse? Was its time as a space for culture and community over?

Not so. The decision was made to rent the premises to a locally-formed co-operative NIAMOS in 2018, this inspiring group going on to launch it as a Radical Art & Cultural Centre, upholding local artistry and creativity. This involved a Nina Simone Tribute Night (in homage to the great artist who, as aforementioned, previously came to The Playhouse) and has gone onto host a range of events and exhibitions. What’s in the name? One of the stories is that it is an acronym for ‘Never In A Month Of Sundays’ – as outside observations were perhaps sceptical as to whether the building could be maintained.

Thankfully it has been an inspirational story so far, with NIAMOS continuing to use the space to celebrate artists, creativity, marginalised voices and a people-focused approach. They also continue to maintain the historic venue and explore possibilities for its use; including everything from a micro-bakery to studio space! A music video for Evil Blizzard (directed by Giles Daniel Bastow and previously covered by Haunt here) was even filmed in a section of the building, and charity fundraisers (including to help maintain the upkeep of the building), Kinofilm Festival events and much more has since been held at NIAMOS. Snow White’s Privilege is therefore highly-anticipated. 

By Jody Hartley

Margo Riley, NIAMOS Community Producer, reflects:

 “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.”

Now The Playhouse Theatre space there is ready too… with Snow White’s Privilege the first show to take place for a quarter of a century! And it certainly seems an apt production: with themes of  under-represented voices, the importance of celebrating identity and hidden heritage. Set to be a vibrant, thought-provoking production with flair, this is a unique show not to be missed. A range of ticket options include different choices of seating, advance discounts and M15 resident tickets also. Book now: https://www.skiddle.com/whats-on/Manchester/NIAMOS-Formely-The-Nia-Centre-/Snow-White-Privilege-/13701223/

For more about NIAMOS and to support their work, they are on Facebook and Instagram. A NYE Party is also taking place there on 31 December, featuring Nia Residents, Jack Red Eye, Dave Ruf, Sir Robin, Layla playing live, and more! Also featured will be the Psychedelic DiscoTech DJs and special guest Mr Dave Haslam. Tickets here

By Emily Oldfield 

Photography

Images of building with thanks to NIAMOS

Images of the cast in costume - credit: Jody Hartley


[3] Rudyard, Nigel; Wyke, Terry (1994), Manchester Theatres, Bibliography of North West England

[7] Cochrane, Claire  (2016) Facing the Face of the Other: The Case of the Nia Centre. In: Theatre History and Historiography Ethics, Evidence and Truth. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK, pp. 121-146. ISBN 978-1-137-45727, 1137457279

[8] Rudyard, Nigel; Wyke, Terry (1994), Manchester Theatres, Bibliography of North West England

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