Critics have, in this attention-deficit age, mostly signed up to facilitating the quick critical fix: the star rating that provides an instant visual summary of what a critic feels about the show. (Only The Observer amongst the national papers doesn’t provide them, and neither does The Stage). There is, of course, no scientific formula for how it is arrived at; how we arrive at our decisions as to what to award a show is up to us. And just as the words they accompany are ultimately and inevitably a subjective statement of opinion, however we seek to dress them objectively, so the way each of us applies our star ratings is a personal choice, too.
Some critics are frugal in their ratings; in a recent Guardian blog, Matt Trueman pointed out, “You have to go as far back as August 2009 to find Lyn Gardner’s last full house (Love Letters Straight from Your Heart, since you ask)”. Ian Shuttleworth, responding to the Guardian blog, wrote that he gives “maybe one five star review a year in the FT”. Others are far more generous: hardly a week seems to go by without Libby Purves, chief theatre critic of The Times since June, awarding a show a full house, so much so that “doing a Libby” is now critical shorthand for giving shows a five star rating.
And of course just as star ratings are personal, so how one responds to them is personal, too: I’d far rather a critic as enthusiastic and generous as Purves, who exemplifies those qualities in person as well, than the hard-to-please (and therefore often hard-to-like) critical curmudgeon, of which there are always one or two candidates in our ranks. There are, of course, also the bi-polars: the critics who vacillate between the two extremes, praising some things to the skies and damning others to the depths. Then there are those who mostly sit on the fence, hovering predictably around the three star mark and straying the occasional point up or down, but never going to the extremes, and which can be a little dull.
Of course, just as you find out what a critic’s tastes are if you read and follow them long enough, you also learn to read meaning into their star ratings, too. I’ll never forget Nicholas de Jongh’s review for a play called Embers at the Duke of York’s in 2006, where he wrote, “I was fired, moved and enthralled by Embers. I rate it as one of the major experiences of my theatre-going life.” Yet he could only be stirred to award it a four-star rating.
As Matt Trueman writes in The Guardian blog I quoted earlier, “A production can be entirely successful - vivid and vibrant, fiercely intelligent, roaringly enjoyable and deeply emotive - and still not merit that final accolade. Even that old critical chestnut, a ‘must-see’ event, doesn’t necessarily confer top marks. To earn that fifth star, must theatre be more than unmissable? Clearly we’re not talking about perfection. No one would maintain the existence of such a thing.”
Matt proceeds to try to arrive at a working definition of what might merit a five-star review, and suggests, “Life-changing seems a bit much to ask, and memorable falls short. So what: joyous? Rapturous? Vital? Of course, facetiousness aside, there’s no formula. We can’t judge theatre, multifarious as it is, according to a single goal. For me, a five-star rating is a very personal judgment - as reflective of the critic in question as the show itself. Four stars can be given grudgingly, but five is a real statement of belief. It says: ‘This is what theatre can do.’ It says: ‘If only all theatre were this good.’ It says: ‘This is what I believe theatre ought to be doing.’ It looks to the future. Because there’s always a reason not to give five stars. Fault can always be found. To give five is a leap of faith. It is to set oneself up for judgment, to put one’s head above the parapet and have the courage of your convictions. There’s risk in that, and critics deserve credit for doing so. Not five stars, though: it is their job, after all.”
It is, in other words, a way of nailing your critical colours to the mast. I’ve just looked back over the last couple of months, and I see that I gave four five-star reviews in August (the Young Vic’s Beauty Queen of Leenane, the West End transfer of the Menier’s Shirley Valentine; a return visit to Billy Elliot and Daniel Kitson’s It’s All Right Now at this year’s Edinburgh fringe); and four in September (the Royal Court’s Clybourne Park; the Donmar’s Passion and the returns of Complicite’s A Disappearing Number and Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock). They’re all shows that resonated for me so completely that I wanted to share that enthusiasm with my readers; but it’s also striking that half of them were repeats, so that may have skewed the overall average.
In his response to The Guardian blog, Ian Shuttleworth quoted an unnamed colleague’s definition of what makes a four or five star rating: “A four-star show is one that is excellent in every respect; a five-star show is a four-star show plus magic.” And Ian says, “I tried following this, but realised after a while that there was always an element of editorialising in my five-starrings, so I inwardly accepted that and now work more or less on the definition ‘This is not only comprehensively excellent, but it’s important that as many people as possible go to see it’.”
That sets the bar for five star reviews exceptionally high; no wonder that, when Time Out sought to introduce a sixth star for shows that deserve that extra accolade, they were hardly ever able to award it, and it was eventually quietly dropped. But I like Ian’s definition, only in as much as being an enthusiast for the theatre I do hope that a five-star rating might lead more people to a show I love.
But I always hope that my star ratings are read in context with the words that accompany them. Too often seeing a star rating is a way of avoiding having to read the words themselves; in fact, critical colleagues will often exchange opinions of a show not by asking each other what we thought of it, but merely asking what star rating we gave it. But I also use my star rating sometimes as part of the narrative of my review, to help me having to write the words themselves: because I am invariably pushed for space in my 500 word Sunday review column, the rating provides its own editorial shorthand for what I feel without me having to use precious further words to spell it out.