Arifa Akbar named Guardian's new chief theatre critic as Michael Billington steps down

Arifa Akbar named Guardian's new chief theatre critic as Michael Billington steps down

The Guardian has named Arifa Akbar as its new chief theatre critic, replacing Michael Billington who steps down next month after nearly 50 years in the role.

Akbar will leave her role as arts editor at Tortoise Media to take up the post at the Guardian, having already written for the newspaper for several years and contributed to its sister-title the Observer.

Guardian editor Katharine Viner described Akbar as a “wonderful writer on the arts” whose reviews are “thoughtful, evocative and insightful”.

She added: “I can’t think of a better writer to guide Guardian readers through all that is new and exciting on the stage.”

Akbar was previously literary editor at the Independent and was head of content for book publisher Unbound, where she launched and edited the long-form literary website Boundless in 2017.

A trustee of the Orwell Foundation, she helps run its annual book prize.

Akbar said: “I have always loved the Guardian and it has only grown more dynamic, diverse and campaigning under Katharine Viner, not just in its political coverage but across the arts too.

“Today’s theatre is alive with imagination, passion and fury, talking directly to, and about, the world we live in. I hope to reflect that in my coverage and critiques.”

Billington will leave the Guardian this Christmas with some 10,000 reviews to his name, having joined as its chief theatre critic in 1971 when the paper cost just 5p.

He said it had been a “huge privilege and pleasure to write about theatre for the Guardian for the past 48 years”, adding: “I have, however, decided to step down from the job of daily reviewing.

“I shall shortly be 80 and, with the years, the stress of writing to a deadline doesn’t get any easier. Giving up will be a wrench but I feel now is the right time to do it.”

One of the longest-serving theatre critics, Billington was made an OBE in 2013 for services to the theatre.

Viner said: “I’ve been reading Michael’s writing for as long as I can remember – the insights, flair and depth of his writing have been essential to my understanding of theatre for decades, as it has for so many Guardian readers.

“The ‘Billington review’ is a vital moment for any new production, as eagerly sought out by readers and rival critics as it is by performers and directors. Michael’s run as the Guardian’s chief theatre critic has been extraordinary.

“I am delighted that he will continue to write for us regularly, and I’d like to thank him on behalf of hundreds of colleagues, and thousands of readers, past and present, for everything he has brought to the Guardian for the past 48 years.”

Picture: The Guardian