Mark Shenton: What makes a five-star show?

Joe McElderry in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Churchill Theatre, Bromley. Photo: Mark Yeoman
Joe McElderry in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Churchill Theatre, Bromley. Photo: Mark Yeoman
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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In the past few weeks, I've come out to bat for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Mother at the Tricycle Theatre, and Nell Gwynn (transferred from Shakespeare's Globe to the Apollo), awarding them all five-star raves. I very nearly awarded the National Theatre's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Hampstead Theatre's Rabbit Hole five stars as well, but in the end settled on four.

For five stars, a show has to go the extra distance, providing a particular kind of pleasure. For Joseph, that was to see a well-loved (or even well-worn) standard that has been doing the rounds for 36 years – albeit periodically renewed – completely reinvigorated by the presence of the best sung Joseph I've ever heard, Joe McElderry. For The Mother, I was simply shattered by this forensic examination of depression. And for Nell Gwynn, I was exhilarated and delighted by its sheer theatricality.

By comparison, I awarded a rare one-star pan to Hand to God – despite the best efforts of a terrific cast, I just couldn't stand watching it. Most shows, of course, exist somewhere between those two extremes. And that's a good thing. Life can't be all fabulous, or perfectly dreadful; but those are the polarising extremes that the internet seems to thrive on. If something can't be the best thing you've ever seen, it will get as much attention by being among the worst.

The other day my colleague Ian Shuttleworth of the Financial Times tweeted a line about the show he'd just seen:

And a few days earlier, he'd also tweeted:

On a separate Facebook posting, he clarified about his Don Quixote post:

Probably won't change your life like The Encounter or Cleansed, but it'll make the whole world a brighter place, and in 2016 that's a fucking big ask.

I have to admit that I've yet to see Cleansed myself – but as a result of the polarising reactions it has had (with one-star reviews from Quentin Letts and Ann Treneman in the Daily Mail and The Times respectively), I've now made plans to do so. So negative reviews, too, can send me rushing to the box office, especially ones written with the ardour and dismissiveness of Letts', who is a master of the putdown. His review of Cleansed is a prize specimen of this ability; it takes you inside the experience of watching it, minute by minute.

Star ratings can be a useful barometer for judging a production's reception, without having to spend the time actually reading Treneman (though in fact she's already become so predictable that I'm not sure I even need to read her anymore to know what she's going to think). Her summary dismissal of the new regime at the National that I recently wrote about has already made me dismiss her.

So yes, critics inevitably rate each other. My own five-star review invariably goes to Susannah Clapp, whose Sunday columns in The Observer are a model of well-expressed opinions. I also seriously rate Andzrej Lukowksi of Time Out for the freshness and vigour of his writing, and The Stage's reviews editor Natasha Tripney for her insights and intelligence. The great news is that there is still a lot of good critical writing out there, and critics who take their responsibilities seriously, not flippantly.

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