Let’s be clear: there is no upside or silver lining to the Evening Standard’s decision to let go of its theatre critics Henry Hitchings and Fiona Mountford, good people who deserved far better, eliminated in an act of ruthless bean-counting. At the same time, I don’t think it’s helpful to conclude that it’s another nail in the coffin – as endlessly discussed – of British theatre criticism.
After several days of everyone wondering what was going on, the Standard blithely announced a couple of brand new theatre critics. The statement’s lack of a formal ‘thank you’, or even acknowledgement of the predecessors, added insult to injury. But it also demonstrated the Standard’s essential commitment to writing about theatre.
There are two reasons why coverage is unlikely to disappear from the national press while there is still a national press. Both are pragmatic. One is that theatre is popular, especially in London, and consequently, there is an inbuilt readership for pieces about it.
The other is that theatre advertising is a big deal. It is my understanding that when another paper attempted to cut all theatre coverage a few years ago, it faced losing significant advertising revenue from the industry, forcing a climbdown. I know some people wish theatre would do more, but it has demonstrated a certain willingness to intervene as a last resort.
And, of course, there’s a special third reason with the Standard: owner Evgeny Lebedev is – to put it mildly – highly enamoured of its annual theatre awards (sometimes you feel they’re the reason he bought the paper) and it would be a hammer blow to his ego to either scrap them, or have them sunk by industry anger.
So why get rid of Hitchings and Mountford in the first place? And, indeed, from a legal perspective, how? Well, here is the brutal truth about theatre criticism in 2019: virtually no lead critics are actually permanent members of any publication’s staff.
Almost all of them are on freelance contracts, meaning they are extremely easy to dispense with or replace. It is horrible, of course: it’s not like these jobs are casual work. But it is the law. The Standard dispensed with them as a cost-cutting measure as part of a wider restructuring.
Mainstream theatre criticism is unlikely to disappear. But professional, full-time critics, whose only real job is to review plays, may be a dying breed. It is unfortunately possible for publications to be committed to criticism whilst being utterly cavalier about individual critics.
The Standard is, in fact, relatively unusual in holding on to a pair of named critics. As I understand it, departing critics at the Guardian, Financial Times, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph have all now been replaced by rotating freelance casts. Coverage levels have also dropped, especially outside London. But there is clearly a bottom line – for now.
There can be a tendency for some in the theatre community to adopt a siege mentality in which mainstream theatre criticism is viewed as a rare commodity, forever under-appreciated by philistine editors. The truth is that it’s simply another part of journalism and its health roughly corresponds to that of the industry as a whole. As such, it is battered, bloodied and frequently a depressing place to be – but it’s still here.