The Media Column: A riveting drama is being played out among national theatre critics

Is that a dagger which I see before me? No, it is several daggers and they are being plunged time and again between the shoulder blades of a number of accomplished newspaper journalists.

Is that a dagger which I see before me? No, it is several daggers and they are being plunged time and again between the shoulder blades of a number of accomplished newspaper journalists.

Such internecine behaviour is hardly unknown in the trade, especially within the highly competitive world of reporting. But these are no ordinary hacks hacking away at one another. As you may have deduced from my opening sentence - Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 1, in case you're wondering - it is among the front stalls of theatre criticism that blood is being spilled, in a drama far more riveting than most of those currently occupying a London stage.

As a dabbler in play reviewing myself, I have watched with dismay as my friends and sometimes colleagues have become embroiled in disputes which, although scarcely publicised, have destabilised the national paper critical establishment.

Catalyst for the turmoil appears to be the Daily Mail, which decided to dispense with its respected critic, Michael Coveney, and recruit the award-winning Charles Spencer from The Daily Telegraph. Spencer, having initially been seduced by money reputed to be in the order of that required to produce a major stage musical, backed out after discussions with the Telegraph and the Mail is currently making do with ad hoc reviewers to fill what, to the theatre industry, is an important press slot.

Coveney was, understandably, not best pleased and Spencer, a thoroughly decent man, remains somewhat chagrined, if better off as a result of the Mail's approach. Coveney says he bears Spencer no ill will, but it is unlikely that the two will be going on their holidays together in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, over at the Daily Express, its critic, Robert Gore-Langton, has been removed in favour of the veteran writer and broadcaster Sheridan Morley, almost as theatrical a figure as his late father, the actor Robert. Canny editor Peter Hill saw in the Mail's discomfort a chance to move in on an area in which the Express has not been seriously competitive in years, even though Morley has no experience of supplying practically instant, on-the-night reviews.

Gore-Langton was less than enchanted at being supplanted by a high-profile figure who had himself been unceremoniously booted out of his critic's job, at The Spectator, to make way for the theatrical dilettante Toby Young. Young, having confessed he knew nothing whatsoever about the theatre, subsequently returned to live and work in America.

Still with me? Then picture the scene in the bar at the Barbican Theatre during the interval on an opening night when Morley engages in conversation the already bruised Coveney, now further incensed by the treatment of his friend Gore-Langton. According to Morley, Coveney called him the very worst four-letter word. According to Coveney, Morley was the first to use the word, provoking the response, "At least I'm not a fat, stupid..." Morley tells me the furore was occasioned by the belief of Coveney and Gore-Langton that he had "stolen" Gore-Langton's job, a charge he denies.

I spoke with Peter Hill, who told me: "Sheridan did pitch for the job, but what's wrong with that? I was delighted to get a letter from him, in which he pointed out how the Express had abandoned first-night crits. I realised immediately that here was a gap in the Express's coverage that was crying out to be filled, and that Sheridan was a voice of authority and a name the readers would recognise. I despise the jealous people who are sniping at a professional and very able man."

The fact is that journalism can be a cut-throat business and it was Morley, not Gore-Langton, who suggested restoring on-the-night reviewing to the Express, which can only be good for the theatre and potential audiences. And of course the show must go on. I can hope only that the current bloodletting does not diminish in importance a part of the editorial mix all too often wrongly dismissed as "soft" by those who consider the sharp end of the paper should be reserved for hard news - most days a theatre first night is as live as a news schedule gets.

In a very readable book about the theatre, The Aisle is Full of Noise, readers are reminded of when the late actor Paul Eddington observed that some people think of critics as myopic, indiscriminate, pathetic, foul-mouthed creatures who are smarting with failure and smitten with inadequacies. Eddington was at a Critics' Circle awards ceremony and only joshing his hosts, but the sentiments must ring true to some of the walking wounded among the current crop.

Especially, perhaps, to Michael Coveney. He wrote the book.

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