Michael Coveney: The Times they are a changin' (again) as critics get fired up for Edinburgh
Our chief critics reflects on recent critic appointments and previews his trip up north
Ann Treneman, the caustic and witty American parliamentary sketch writer for The Times has announced on social media that, from 7 September, she will be chief theatre critic for that newspaper.
Which means that Dominic Maxwell has lasted barely two years in the post since Libby Purves before him was relieved of her duties after just three years; Libby had succeeded Benedict Nightingale, who retired after eighteen years following the thirty majestic, knottily argued years of Irving Wardle, who left of his own accord to join the newly launched Independent on Sunday in 1990.
So what's going on? Chaos and confusion, that's what. The obliteration of critical memory and experience is the side effect of the internet explosion, the mistrust of having a job for life in arts journalism, the demise of the dedicated arts editor and the corrosion of the idea that somehow today's practitioners might nurture and bring on tomorrow's.
There's also a feeling around that today's theatre criticism is quite dull and self-referential, hence the attempt at diffident, patronising sparkiness by occasional critic (their lead) Christopher Hart on the Sunday Times, where Harold Hobson once reigned supreme for thirty uninterrupted, infuriating, brilliant and argumentative years after the war, though The Times still has its own hard-hearted Hannah, Sam "two star" Marlowe, who knows her stuff, as well as several people called Kate.
Treneman – whom I knew when she worked on the Financial Times as a senior sub-editor; she's terribly nice and very good company – is in the Bernard Levin, Peter Jenkins, Quentin Letts line of switching from one set of comedians to another (Parliament to the theatre), and she's the direct appointment of the editor, John Witherow, who thinks very highly of her. I hope he thinks highly enough of Dominic Maxwell to keep him going as Ann's sidekick and lead comedy writer. Dominic was never emblazoned, anyway, as the paper's chief critic, any more than the other Dominic, Cavendish, is trumpeted as the Daily Telegraph's chief critic in the wake of Charles Spencer.
I suppose the thinking behind all this is that you don't have to know anything about the theatre in order to write well about it and that if you're a good writer to start with – Treneman's certainly that – then you're half-way there. Odd how this mantra doesn't apply in appointments to cover other specialist areas such as economics or football or music. Like Libby Purves, though, Ann Treneman's probably been going to the theatre for ever anyway (she's 60 next birthday, so this is no investment in youth or fresh talent) and, hang on a mo, she's written a book called Finding the Plot. Ah... turns out this is not about structure in Greek tragedy or Ray Cooney, but graveyards covered in weeds. It's a tome about tombs. So a cynic might observe that Ann's perfect casting for the new job: she's been down with the dead men for years.
I look forward to finding what's left of my colleagues in Edinburgh later this week and the hard work begins on Thursday morning – there's a tube strike planned, natch - with a trek plus luggage to King's Cross; that should take an hour, max, from my house – the roads will be clogged with semi-stationary buses and cars, so no point in trying to find a cab. A bigger problem is the difficulty of gaining access to previews over the first couple of days as the weekend splurge of premier fringe openings coincides with two days of Traverse press shows, which traditionally take precedence (though that tradition might be weakening). And more trouble: the Udderbelly are having problems with their new tent on the Meadows, the Circus Hub, with previews delayed a couple of days, another flat tyre on my festival bike.
Still, I look forward to some sunshine (here's hoping) in the Summerhall courtyard, the morning concerts in the Queen's Hall, eating if possible (again, here's hoping) in the Café Royal, the Dogs on Hanover Street and the Doric Tavern, discovering the relocated Abattoir club at the Udderbelly in George Square, and catching up with fringe fossils (only joking, guys) Bill Burdett-Coutts, Karen Koren and Anthony Alderson. I still can't get used to the Assembly not being in the Assembly Rooms in George Street (which now houses a Jamie Oliver restaurant, for heaven's sake) and just when I had got used to Tommy Sheppard of The Stand comedy club taking over there for the city council, blow me down, he ups sticks and gets elected to Westminster as one of the new Scottish National Party MPs, representing Edinburgh East.
Perhaps if I get up early enough I can go for a run round Arthur's Seat – he won't mind, and I haven't been up there for several years – or fulfil a long-held ambition to play a round of pitch and putt on Bruntsfield Links, right next to the Meadows. On the other hand, there are galleries to visit, people to see, streets and ginnels to run along (and up), Calton Hill, right where I'm staying, to climb (there used to be kids' shows in the morning up there; I think they were rained off permanently), and a small matter of five or six shows a day – well, perhaps four or five – to sit through. Oh, and I mustn't forget to write them all up so you can either envy me my good luck or thank your lucky stars you couldn't be bothered to make the journey to the Athens of the north yourself.