There’s always a lot of debate around the subject of star ratings, and the necessarily shorthand way they have of reducing a show’s worth to a simple visual reference without allowing room for much critical nuance. There’s no universal standard for what the star ratings mean, either, so it really depends on which critic you’re reading and who is applying them.
One critic’s two stars for effort is another’s more generously disposed three stars; yet another critic’s four star rave is someone else’s five. The problem is particularly acute in the middle-ground of three stars, which a producer once told me he and his colleagues hate — it’s neither one thing nor another; yet it’s truthfully somewhere in the middle that most productions should naturally occupy.
But giving a show three stars could be an invitation for the review itself to be not worth bothering to read: passionate writing tends to go more to the extremes. Thus it is that some critics (including me) are perhaps over-generous with the five-star rave (I had two in the same column last weekend, which was partly a question of timing as to when I caught up with both the Donmar’s stunning revival of Philadelphia, Here I Come and the National’s remarkable new play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time).
So they can mean different things to different people, whether you’re writing the review or reading it. And yet, in our attention deficit, fast-paced age, almost every paper (apart from this one and The Observer, amongst the nationals) uses them. Their publicity value goes two ways: producers like to decorate their posters and ads with star ratings, and newspaper editors and their publicity departments like to see their publication’s names being banded about.
At the Edinburgh Fringe every year, however, an annual outbreak of four and five star ratings amongst then numerous pop-up and even established outlets means that it starts to look like every show is a must-see. (The Stage, which still doesn’t apply star ratings even to its Edinburgh reviews, makes some shows that it has reviewed extremely favourably stand out from the crowd by awarding them a ‘Must See’ badge, the equivalent of a five-star rating elsewhere).
In a recent feature in the print edition of The Stage after this year’s festival ended, fringe regular Guy Masterson advocated a moratorium on star ratings, and has created a Facebook page, “Forum for Abolishment of Review Stars at Edfringe”. He told The Stage’s Thom Dibdin, “All status quos can be reversed if we have a collective mind to it.” And he suggests that the way to go about it is to “only accredit media that are willing not to use stars.”
I can’t see a collective will working to ban coverage by The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and The Scotsman, amongst others, if they didn’t abolish star ratings. The fringe cries out for coverage; and as Dibdin points out, Mr Masterson is more than a little hypocritical, being “happy to grab the stars that had come his way and place them on his own posters.”
But it’s also true, as Lyn Gardner wrote in a Guardian blog during the 2011 fringe, that just as there was grade inflation when it comes to A-level results last year with “another record breaking year”, in Edinburgh “the talk is all of star inflation.”
As she pointed out, “There are now so many pop-up publications and websites covering the fringe that almost every production is able to muster a rave review from somewhere. Suddenly, everyone’s a winner; wander around Edinburgh and you could kid yourself that there’s not a dud show in town”,
Which of course isn’t true. Tom Dibdin’s Stage piece points out just how rampant the star inflation is, citing an online resource by The List magazine that tabulates how many shows are reviewed by each of a number of different websites and what the star ratings awarded are. Not only has the number of shows reviewed risen, but so has the number of five-star reviews being awarded risen disproportionately. “In 2009, 12 sites posted 1,382 reviews. In 2012, 20 sites had posted 7,120 reviews by the end of the fringe. The fivefold increase has been reflected by a similar increase in four-star reviews. But five star reviews have increased by six and a half times, while reviews with one, two or three stars have increased only three or four times.”
This sudden rise has repercussions for all critics. As Lyn Gardner, who is far less generous in her star ratings, points out, “The danger with being over-parsimonious, while all around you are liberal with the stars, is that theatre-goers get used to the over-inflation and mentally lop a star off everything; but that way madness lies.” She quotes an Edinburgh producer saying, “What Edinburgh needs is a seven-star rating system, like the A-level A* or A**.” But Lyn replies that, “on the contrary, what we need is restraint, consideration, contexualisation and enough space to write meaningfully and thoughtfully about a show.”