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A star too far

After a brief hiatus to let the oh so dusty dust settle upon the proverbial something or other, I’m back to the blog and I can assure you, normal service has been resumed as soon as possible.

It seems this week has brought the whirling dervish that is theatrical debate to a round about full circle, as the role and validity of star ratings is questioned in several blogs and articles. Mark Shenton pulled many of these together in his blog yesterday and finishes by saying, “But I always hope that my star ratings are read in context with the words that accompany them”. Something I wholeheartedly agree with. If we relied on star ratings alone, what use are the words anyway?

But as both Matt Trueman in his Guardian blog and Mark go on to say, as with the their words, critics’ star notches are equally subjective and there will never be a universal formula created to attain that elusive fifth star.

My bugbear with star ratings is the absurd swing in conformity one critic sometimes has with another. Of course, each show remains a question of personal taste but can one person really adorn a show with 5 star praise whilst another slams it with 1 star washout? And if they can, as they invariably do, surely star ratings are not such a helpful measure.

In another Guardian blog, Bella Todd goes on to question the unpaid theatre critics and whether they can be trusted. I sort of feel that’s tantamount to questioning whether audience members are allowed to leave the theatre with an opinion in the first place. Surely every audience member who walks into the stalls is an unpaid theatre critic? And in truth, water cooler moments about “…that amazing bit in the finale of Spice Girls: The Musical where Geri and Victoria abseil from the roof onto a trampoline..!” will garner more buzz and push ticket sales (depending on your love/loathing of rope/spring based sporting activities) so we have to trust that our audiences will have an opinion, be it good or bad and that it will have a massive impact on the life of a show; be it audiences defying critics to keep We Will Rock You rocking or shunning the praise of Spring Awakening.

Bella also says: “But the majority of reviews aren’t consumed in this way”. Very true. She goes on: “They reach us stripped down to a line, or simply a star rating, on a piece of promo”. None more so than the second promo poster for the West End run of Legally Blonde featuring the divine Sheridan Smith almost outshone by star ratings and one-liners. To the untrained eye it wouldn’t have looked out of place advertising a somewhat camp planetarium but it does the trick.

And as expected, 5 star reviews are few and far between which is in no way a reflection on a lack of quality; there is a plethora of 4 star big hitters regularly. But it is always great to read a 5 star review and then to see the show in question and be totally blown away. And for me, that is what the fifth star needs to do. I want to leave the theatre knowing that I’ve just witnessed something incredible - be it in design, script, performance or preferably all three. And rather wonderfully, that’s just as likely to happen in a 1200 seat West End theatre as much as a railway arch in Southwark, and rightly so.

I’ll leave with my favourite comment on Mark’s blog, which of course comes from West End Whinger, Andrew. Providing his own descriptors for star ratings -

5 = You MUST see this 4 = See this 3 = Everyday theatre. Might as well go if you have a ticket 2 = Not very good 1 = You MUST see this

And mentioning no names, but I’m sure we’ve all had a few “must see 1 star” shows…

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