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Michael Coveney: Bidding a critical farewell after ten years

Reviewer Michael Coveney on stepping down as critic for WhatsOnStage

WhatsOnStage critic Michael Coveney
© Peter Gibbons

It is exactly ten years since I signed up with WhatsOnStage and tonight I shall write my 2,324th review for the site, though not necessarily my last; for this is au revoir, not adieu, time for a change of pace and a break from going out four or five, often six, nights a week and percolating the experience in the blender of my critical juices. I've been at it since 1972 (that's nearly 9,000 reviews in all, plus countless features, interviews and what used to be called "think" pieces).

It seemed the right time to step back and take a rain check. And to get on with a couple of books I'm planning – one, on the strange and beguiling phenomenon of amateur theatre, has been simmering on a back burner for years – as well as my other freelance commitments. It also seemed right to quit while I'm ahead and still enjoying the job, not wait for the inevitable summons from the knacker's yard.

When I somewhat nervously accepted the WOS invitation from Terri Paddock and David Dobson – my first contract was dated April Fool's Day – Nicholas Hytner said I was joining the online future, and so it has proved. Even newspapers, and certainly their theatre reviews, are invariably online nowadays long before they hit the newsstands. WhatsOnStage has been at the on-line front line in this period, usually first with the reviews, and usually delivered from a wider national and indeed metropolitan perspective than in most other media outlets.

And while I've never joined Facebook or Twitter – I don't want to know what, or whom, other people are eating for breakfast, or where they are going on holiday – I can see that social media is where a lot of the action is, if not much in the way of theatre criticism, and that the world has changed; not always for the better.

I've learned, I think, to be pragmatic and fairly tolerant about this. We're in a state of flux, but then writing about the theatre has been a convulsive business for several decades. I started when a writer's words were painstakingly set in hot metal in the bowels of Fleet Street and when (on Plays and Players magazine) we used to paste up our own print galleys on page lay-outs, a procedure that entailed regular "undercover" meetings with a printer from Basingstoke under the main clock on Waterloo Station.

I wrote on a little office computer – Tandys, they were called – for the first time in 1989, soon afterwards exchanged my beloved Olympia typewriter for a desk top computer and have travelled with laptop and now iPad for the past decade. The beauty of new technology, too, is that all the mistakes are one's own, not those of a copy-taker ("Is there much more of this?") down the telephone line.

I admire the way WOS mixes theatre news, quizzes (full disclosure: I usually score 80 per cent correct, rarely 100), jaunty features and ticket offers with a hard-nosed approach to reviewing while ever mindful of the commercial imperatives; we take what happens at the Yard and Theatre 503 just as seriously as the National, Palladium and the Haymarket, and we have some of the very best opera reviews in the business.

It's been a joy working with the previous owners and editors as much as it is now with the current team, and I know the WhatsOnStage project, envied and admired by all our online competitors, will continue to thrive, not least in the annual awards, voted for by the readers and culminating in the concert at the Prince of Wales Theatre, where all worlds meet: performers, winners, readers and friends, producers and playmates.

I'm in the middle of a big office tidy-up at home, so I feel as though I'm at the start of a new phase in my professional life rather than at the end of another one, and I'm planning all sorts of trips and adventures in the coming months, not least a holiday in Madeira (he almost Twittered) and the Stratford-upon-Avon half-marathon (my sixth) over Shakespeare's birthday weekend. I was in Stratford for the quatercentenary of the Bard's birth in 1964; the least I can do is turn up for the quarter-centenary of his death on St George's Day.

But in the short term I'm already looking forward to Sunset Boulevard and The Caretaker next week, even though I won't be reviewing them...though, of course, everything remains grist to my mill, and I may even be popping back to blog or report here at the editor's invitation when you least expect it...happy-ever-after theatre-going; it's been a privilege to let off steam – heat and light, I hope – in your company.

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