Nick Ahad: Why newspaper arts critics are a vital part of our cultural life

It’s a tricky thing to admit, when you’re wrong. Or when you suspect you might be.

I’ve been writing theatre reviews for over 16 years now for a variety of newspapers and magazines and I am fairly confident, after reviewing several hundred theatre productions all around Yorkshire, in the bank of knowledge on which I draw when I judge the relative quality of a production.

Last week, it’s possible I got it ‘wrong’. Before I explain where I may have erred, a note on that word wrong.

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As newspapers feel the constant squeeze on their resources and look to see where they can make cuts, it seems some national newspapers have looked towards the culture pages as a section they can slice.

The Independent on Sunday has done away with its theatre critics and others have followed suit.

I think this is a huge mistake – and not for the obvious reasons of self-preservation you might suspect. As newspapers continue to fight for survival, we need to look at what those marketing types call the USP – what is it that newspapers can offer that no-one else can?

In the world of arts criticism the question is more pressing than ever – the countless blogs and websites where people write reviews for free are popping up at a rate of knots. As my colleague Mark Shenton argues regularly and eloquently in The Stage, it makes the need for the voices of authority – him, Lyn Gardner, Michael Billington et al – more vital than ever.

The Yorkshire Post, Yorkshire’s National Newspaper, an institution that is over 260 years old, has a completely unique SP. In Culture one of the USPs is the critics we 
have, who draw on huge experience to cast their judgement on the wide range of arts events in the region.

So when I saw White Christmas at West Yorkshire Playhouse a couple of weeks ago and was a little underwhelmed by the first act, I wrote so. The acting really is fantastic, as is Nick Winston’s choreography and director Nikolai Foster is at the top of his game as usual, but the first act just felt too thin to me.

Since then I’ve read the reviews of other critics and heard from people both on Twitter and on my BBC Radio Leeds show and it seems I am in a minority. I called it as I saw it. However, I’m anything but infallible. I never go into a show with a preconceived notion and only judge what is in front of me at the time (I don’t take notes like a lot of other critics – I’ve always maintained it is a distraction and if I’m taking notes then I’m not immersing myself in the experience). So my review of White Christmas reflected how the show made me feel at the time. I’m going to go back, unannounced, at some point in the next few weeks and see if that first half works a little better for me second time round.

And if I was wrong, I’ll gladly hold up my hands and admit it. I suspect I may have been.