Critics claim not to like the star rating system because it reduces our work to a simple symbol, and discourages people from actually reading the words to find out what you really thought.
But there’s something so uniquely dismissive and yet so eloquent and elegant about a one-star rating that it invariably draws my attention to it like no other. What is the bullet I have dodged? (I also find it useful to save me a wasted night out).
But can a show be so catastrophic that it deserves such contempt? And it’s always the case that there’s an element of taste involved. I remember that when the musical Bat Boy first opened at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds in 2004, it earned a four-star rave from Alfred Hickling in The Guardian suggesting it might be “a cult hit in the making”; when the self-same production transferred to the West End’s Shaftesbury, The Guardian reviewed it again – but this time Michael Billington gave it just one star, judging it to be:
one of those campy Off-Broadway shows that secretly delights in its own awfulness: the theatrical equivalent of a movie like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Quite what it is doing on a West End stage, after a run at West Yorkshire Playhouse, is a mystery.
But part of the reason it was there was The Guardian’s own prior endorsement – the producers would have been encouraged by the positive feedback to take it further. Intriguingly, the show has just returned to London for the first time since then, and this time it has got a three-star review from Lyn Gardner which concluded that “this mock-tragic tale boasts an oddly lovable heart and a winning score.”
So The Guardian alone has run the gamut on the show from one to four stars. That’s a show I’m glad I made my own mind up about. In other cases, however, a one-star pan has made me feel I’ve read enough to know how it would turn out. Such is the case with Truth, Lies, Diana, a new play about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales at the Charing Cross Theatre, about which Lyn Gardner writes in a one-star review in The Guardian:
This tedious, barely competent show is mostly very old news, recycled from rumours, conspiracy-theory websites and the research of an obsessive Australian, John Morgan, who has written nine books on the subject.
She concludes: “This tawdry evening tackles its subject in sensationalist tabloid style rather than with seriousness. Its only treasonable offence is for conspicuous crimes against theatre.” Ouch”!
Another day, another play: Fiona Mountford has also recently awarded a one-star review to a new play that has just opened at the Park Theatre, about which she says: “There’s no getting around the brutal fact: Contact.com is one of the least plausible plays that I have suffered through in years.” And her review concludes icily: “Ridiculousness reigns.” I think I’ll skip it
Last year I gave a one-star pan to Mr Burns at the Almeida in The Stage, which was my own visceral response to a play that made me, I said, lose the will to live. But as I also wrote in a subsequent column:
One critic’s one-star review, as I’ve just given Mr Burns at the Almeida in The Stage, is another’s five-star rave, as Michael Coveney has done on Whatsonstage.
As I went on to remark, “It’s clearly a show that is going to divide people. And that’s no bad thing: it’s not trying to be safe.”
I stand by my review, but was I too harsh to give it just one star? Since I’d found nothing to redeem the evening, probably not. But the star rating needs to be read in conjunction with the review.