Last week, I wrote a one-star review for I Loved Lucy at the Arts Theatre in London.
Like its five-star counterpoint, the one-star review is not a commonly sighted beast and the ones you’ve written tend to stick in the mind. Dora the Explorer Live!, Peter Pan El Musical and Menopause the Musical were productions so inept that only one star (or less) would suffice. But you don’t write them often and you think hard before you do.
Readers sometimes take pleasure in a one-star review that gives a show a good kicking, but I really don’t think that we critics take huge pleasure in writing them.
Being a UK theatre critic is a constant affirmation of hope over experience. To make it to the theatre every evening, you have to genuinely believe that tonight will be the night when you will see that unlooked-for show that will blow you away and remind you why you fell in love with theatre in the first place.
I often think how privileged I am to do a job that maybe half a dozen times a year – maybe a few more if you are lucky – will give you the sudden rush of hormones that you associate with falling in love. I bet mechanical engineers and accountants don’t have that kind of job satisfaction.
But if awarding one star requires restraint, so does the five-star review. Critics all want to applaud British theatre, but we are not cheerleaders for it. Throwing stars around indiscriminately does nobody any good.
Too much expectation can kill something stone dead. Often those five-star-laden shows from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe can look more like three-star shows in the cold light of London several months later.
I recently went to see the West End transfer of The Ferryman with my heart in my mouth after the slew of rave reviews. Thankfully, all the five-stars proved entirely justified, but too often I see a production that has been salivated over by colleagues only to wonder what was in their interval drinks on press night.
Producers may not thank me for it, but when it comes to handing out the stars I’d always prefer to err on the side of caution. It is better that the audience leaves the theatre wondering at my parsimonious four stars rather than feeling slightly disappointed that what they saw was not the glorious five-star production the critics had promised.
Of course, as far as producers and theatres are concerned, the more stars the merrier. But I reckon a disappointed theatregoer is on the road to becoming a non-theatregoer.
But the trickiest area for critics to negotiate is not at the top or the bottom of the scale, but in the middle. You see plenty of three and four-star reviews, but like the one and five-star rating, the two-star rating is much less widely used.
If you look back over several weeks of theatre reviewing in a range of publications, including this one, the vast majority of star ratings are in the three or four-star range. It would rather suggest that the vast majority of British theatre is consistently rather good. But is that true?
I think that most theatre isn’t as good as all those three and four-star ratings might suggest, but merely so-so. An awful lot of theatre is a two-star experience. But critical ratings seldom reflect that.
Of course you can give a show three stars and talk it down or give a show three stars and then talk it up. Three stars at the National Theatre probably suggests high production values and possibly fine acting, but a certain level of disappointment around the work.
But three stars for a show by a young company in a small venue may well represent a fragile but interesting piece of theatre that is well worth everyone’s time and money. Except, if you award it three stars, will anyone actually read the review so that those distinctions and subtleties become apparent? Probably not.
In such circumstances, I’m as likely to fall prey, as any critic, to star-rating inflation and bung on another one. This happens a lot in Edinburgh, where the first thing you have to decide on arrival is whether you are reviewing in a festival context or the wider context of year-round UK theatre.
These problems would be solved if newspapers dispensed with star ratings and reverted to unstarred reviews that actually have to be read if you want to know what the critic thinks. Alas, that’s unlikely to happen, not least because while many in the industry claim to hate the rating system, theatres collude in it by plastering four and five-star reviews all over their walls.