Star-crossed Reviews


Star-crossed … a relationship thwarted by outside forces; a pairing thwarted by a malign star.

Shakespeare used it most memorably in the prologue to Romeo and Juliet: 

“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.”

In the context of professional arts reviewing, the term takes on a whole new meaning.

In July, the highly respected critic Lyn Gardner wrote a one-star review of I Loved Lucy at the Arts Theatre in London for The Guardian. A week later, she followed it with an article in The Stage which reflected on the exigencies of the star rating system. It turned out to be one of the paper’s most widely read pieces of the past year.

Gardner correctly pointed out that the one-star review – like the five-star review – is a rare beast. Only in exceptional circumstances does a critic award one or other and, in such a case, one might be asked to run the decision by the editor in advance of publication.

In many years of reviewing, this writer has been spare in handing a production five stars. Most recently it was felt that Shannon Yee’s Reassembled Slightly Askew and the Prime Cut/Lyric co-production of Red were deserving of that rating. The justification  is that a production should be unique, exceptional, that no improvements or caveats could be suggested by the critic.

At the other end of the scale, the rationale is equally stringent, probably more so, given the potential negative effects on the future life of the production. It is a decision that no critic takes lightly.  In truth, this writer can recall writing a one-star review only on a single occasion and so long ago that the title eludes me.

It’s the middle ground that can be more problematic, that thorny area between three and four stars. Two stars tend to signal disappointment rather than disaster, though the producing company may not necessarily interpret it in that light. I am in agreement with Gardner’s argument that:

“… 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 … the two-star rating is much less widely used.

“If you look back over several weeks of theatre reviewing in a range of publications … 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.”

Though based in London, Gardner frequently travels to productions in England, Wales and Scotland. She writes a tremendously popular and influential blog every year from the Edinburgh Festival. Hers is not a London-centred view and the scope of comparisons made in her insightful reviews bears witness to that fact.

But for critics who mainly cover work within their home patch, the situation tends to be rather different.  In a small artistic community like our own, we move in the same circles, we see one another frequently, we like one another, we respect one another’s work.  Most critics consider themselves to be part of the creative process, though whether they are seen that way within the sector is another matter.

When opening night arrives, invisible but well defined lines are drawn. Everyone has a job to do to the best of his or her ability, on stage, backstage, from the director’s chair to the producer’s front row seat. The critic’s job is to tell  it as he or she sees it.  Sometimes, the verdict will be positive, sometimes less so.  In this context, personal relationships can enter in at both ends of the scale. That’s when a critic can feel stymied by the editorial requirement not just to express a constructive, informed opinion but to supply a star rating before the final full stop.

Gardner concludes her article thus:

“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.”

Could one foresee a reversion to the old ways?  Such a move would free critics to write reviews unfettered by the final onerous task of adding a row of stars.  Would the industry and the media agree to it?  It’s better to receive a star-free review with a bit of integrity to it than a star-crossed one … surely?

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