The news that theatre critics Henry Hitchings and Fiona Mountford will no longer be writing for the London Evening Standard is not good for London theatre. Between them, they notch up 27 years of experience, which means an accumulated level of knowledge and expertise that allows them to put shows in context.
Hitchings and Mountford, who are being let go as part of a cost-cutting drive, have both done their job with enormous dedication. Apart from The Stage, they remain the only critics who regularly – and not just for the very highest-profile openings – still turn in overnight reviews. That is a real skill in itself, and one that requires both nerve and stamina to do night after night.
Hitchings has confirmed on Twitter that the Standard will still run theatre reviews, presumably written by those who are on the staff of the paper. If that turns out to be the case, it rather plays to the mistaken idea that writing theatre reviews requires no skill whatsoever and that popping along to the theatre night after night is not a job but a perk for which reviewers should be grateful and does not require proper financial recompense.
Presumably, some theatre coverage will allow the Standard to continue to rake in lucrative theatre advertising and run the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, which gives the paper’s owner Evgeny Lebedev the chance to take his annual selfies with the stars.
What, of course, it doesn’t do is demonstrate that the Standard has a genuine commitment to theatre, which is part of the great cultural offering that makes London such a unique city in which to live and work. As that city’s parish newspaper, I would have thought it had some responsibility towards supporting an activity that is a major contributor artistically, socially and financially. Theatre is one of the drivers of London’s economy and shops, pubs, cafes and restaurants would all struggle without it.
But the Standard is not alone in ditching theatre when looking to make cuts to costs: national newspaper coverage of regional theatre is gradually being eroded as space and budgets are hacked back. The experimental is being ignored in favour of the mainstream.
Now, don’t get me wrong. As I have written before when I lost my job at the Guardian, no single critic, however good or influential they are — and Hitchings and Mountford were both, is indispensable. One of the great changes for the better over my reviewing lifetime is the increasing number of people writing about theatre in many different ways on digital platforms. When I first began writing about theatre for City Limits in the 1980s, theatre criticism was dominated by 14 white, Oxbridge-educated men. That is no longer the case, and that is good for theatre.
But most of those people who now write tirelessly about theatre, and who are often writing about it with real insight and passion, are doing it for nothing. Every time a theatre criticism job is lost, it is likely to be lost forever. History tells us that when a publication cuts its theatre coverage, it seldom returns to former levels. That means many of those honing their skills as bloggers and going out night after night face decreasing opportunities to ever get on the ladder of paid work.
Just as we will only get real and sustained diversity in British theatre when everybody is properly paid, with no economic barriers to access, so we will only have real and sustained diversity in theatre criticism when there are more paid opportunities available. That means that theatre needs to accept that it must support publications that are providing the reviews they value and not just expect to get content for nothing.
It would easy for the industry simply to shrug its shoulders and think that the loss of a few more criticism jobs won’t have a real impact. But a strong critical culture is crucial to a strong theatre ecology and every critical voice that is lost means not just fewer ticket sales but also makes it far less likely that future talent will be spotted and championed.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner