With effect from this week’s print edition of The Stage, you will see some significant changes to the reviews pages in this paper
, and also to the reviews published online
Mostly this is to do with enhanced information: as the leading trade publication, it’s good to be able to give credit where credit is due, and be able to list more of the behind-the-scenes personnel that make a show actually happen, like casting directors, production managers, company managers, stage managers and technical managers, and heads of lighting, sound, wardrobe and wigs.
But there’s also another big change: we are, for the first time, offering star ratings
with our reviews. There isn’t a single national newspaper that reviews theatre (and not all do: the Independent on Sunday fired all their critics last year) that doesn’t offer them nowadays. They’ve become a cultural shorthand for the way shows and other events are discussed. Even when critics discuss shows between them, the most commonly asked question is: ‘So how many stars did you give it?’
In an attention-deficit age, where star ratings provide a quick critical fix in offering an instant visual summary of what a critic might feel about a show, could it be that we are hastening the creeping redundancy of critics themselves? Readers may simply glance at the rating and not bother to read our carefully-crafted words anymore.
That’s certainly what cultural commentator (and former arts editor) Norman Lebrecht thinks. Writing a recent blog
on the controversy over the reception given to 27-year-old opera singer Tara Erraught, he pointed out that one of the offending critics Richard Morrison of The Times had noted in a follow-up feature that the paper hadn’t received a single letter, e-mail or online posting objecting to his review.
But then when The Times did, in fact, receive and publish seven letters about it, only one actually related specifically to the original review. As he duly wrote, “This will be intensely frustrating for professional critics, indicating as it does that the review was, at most, skim-read on first publication.”
He reckons the reason for that is in the stars. As he says,
In a former life, as assistant editor of a formerly respected newspaper, I fought hard and successfully against the blight of applying star ratings to reviews of live performances. My argument was that once readers counted the stars they would not bother to read those reviews. Of all my gloomiest predictions, I fear this one has been most fully validated. When I stepped down, the stars took over. Today, critics whose columns are unadorned by stars stand a chance of getting read down to the very end. The rest must hope for a scandal or a miracle to secure close attention from a general readership.
Of course critics want to be read, but we also want to be heard. And it’s a fact of life that star ratings are now part of the critical vocabulary that enable us to be heard above the din elsewhere. We provide a benchmark for the public to measure their own star ratings against.
There are now opinions everywhere – but if critics are to continue to count, we must not be afraid to engage with the conversation. And if star ratings help us to be part of it, that’s a good thing. But the star ratings are only the start of the conversation, not the end of it. So they need to be read in conjunction with the words they are attached to.
The fact is that they don’t really otherwise allow sufficient nuance or opportunity for reflection. They’re a broad brushstroke of opinion, but the devil is in the detail of how that conclusion has been reached.
The biggest problem is that there is no accepted standard for what each star rating actually means from critic to critic, let alone publication to publication. One critic’s four-star review is another’s five, and sometimes a two-star is another’s three. As you align yourself with a particular critic and read them regularly, you will get to know what their own tastes are.
In a recent blog on Whatsonstage,
a table was provided of five leading critics (including their own) and what star ratings each of them had provided in the previous year. It made interesting reading. Charles Spencer had the best time at the theatre – seeing some 20 five-star shows over that period, with just two two-star shows, out of 134 shows in total. On the other hand, Lyn Gardner saw five five-star shows, and six one-star shows, amongst some 229 that she chalked up.
This isn’t, of course, in any way a direct comparison, as they weren’t seeing the same shows. But just as Charlie was happy to nail his colours to the mast on the number of five-star shows he’d seen, Michael Billington and Henry Hitchings only saw five and six five-star shows respectively, but also only one one-star show each.
The editor of The Stage, meanwhile, has given us critics a rule of thumb to apply in issuing star ratings at either end of the spectrum that makes very good sense: while a five-star rating should be used only for shows that are the very best of their kind, one-star is for appalling examples of their type that fail on every or nearly every level. The vast majority of shows, of course, will therefore be two to four stars.