Written for The Collective Review, 28 January 2010
Theatre reviewing is a dead men’s shoes business. One someone lands a chief critic position at a national newspaper, they’ll traditionally hold onto that position until they’re buried or senile. So for all the deputies and second-stream critics, and for all us up-and-comers watching hawk-like for new deputy or second-stream opportunities, the voluntary retirement of two chief critics within a year of one another should have been a cause for (slightly guilty) celebration.
In March of 2009, Nicholas de Jongh of the Evening Standard quit so he could concentrate on writing plays of his own. And this week, the mighty Benedict Nightingale, chief critic of The Times for two entire decades, announced he was stepping down too.
What many of us assumed would happen next – what we’d been counting on happening next – was that everyone would effectively shuffle up one level. Dominic Maxwell would take Nightingale’s position as chief critic, one of The Times’s favourite freelancers would probably get Maxwell’s job, and a space would open up on the paper’s freelancers list. In short, there would be opportunities.
Instead, both de Jongh and Nightingale were replaced in pretty short order by, respectively, writer Henry Hitchings and journalist Libby Purves, both figures from outside the theatre journalism bubble. Bold and unexpected moves by the Standard and the Thunderer – but while Hitchings is doing an excellent job, and it’s difficult to imagine Purves putting a foot wrong, what does this mean for the rest of us?
It means we all stay on the rungs we’re on, of course, but more importantly it means we’re less likely than ever to move up even by one. There are fewer paid critics’ positions than there’ve ever been, they’re only vacated once in a blue moon, and the message we’re now gettingis that even when one does open up we have zero chance of getting it, no matter how much commitment and drive we show, no matter how much talent we display and develop, no matter how many years we spend working for free to build our portfolios.
Well, fine. Forget the nationals. Forget the dream of being paid to do what you love. Instead, get a day job and embrace the internet. Make a hobby of it, not a career. Critics were once commonly viewed as dilettantes and dabblers – and if we aren’t allowed to climb higher, moving backwards towards that romantic image may be our only sensible option.