Stars get in your eyes

The 'star system' provides a poor measure of a play’s quality.

Matt Warman

Topics Culture

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The point of most reviews, for most readers, is not ‘This newspaper likes this’, but rather ‘This is on, here, now’. Especially in music and theatre, there’s a tendency for the good and the interestingly bad to share a stage with the thoroughly pointless, so it is the job of the critic to navigate that maze.

The simplest method, described by playwright David Hare as ‘militantly philistine’, is ‘The Star System’. It’s probably important at events such as the Edinburgh Fringe, and somewhere between meretricious and counter-productive everywhere else. This is not least because the Fringe programme is in alphabetical order, presumably because organisers believe that audiences wake up hell-bent on seeing something beginning with G. Nobody, it seems, has ever mentioned to them that more people wonder what’s on at 3pm. In the world where there are more shows than it is possible to see, there’s a real need for arbitration between audiences and performers.

So, the theory goes, a vaguely expert opinion saying that something’s worth the ticket price is a help. And it is, but only by comparison with getting no information at all. A three-out-of-five-star piece of contemporary dance might get some people really excited – it might be genuinely rather good for its genre – but that doesn’t give most potential audience members any clue about whether they’ll be enthralled. Reading a review – which provides far more opportunity to be subtle – might. A practically faultless production of Oedipus at Colonus, say, might get a deserved five stars. But, as most would acknowledge, it would be about one-tenth as good as an equivalent production of Oedipus Rex because Sophocles’ original is some way better than his (still awesome) sequel.

So either the Rex would also be awarded five stars, and by comparison deserve 50, or the Colonus would be awarded just half of a single star. And if the reviewer were allowed an explanatory sentence then he or she might mention that Oedipus at Colonus was brilliant, eye-opening, but that – relatively – it just wasn’t quite up there. That would, to some critics, also leave the best plays of this century struggling around the three-star mark, and the same is true of cinema, music from Scissor Sisters to Shostakovich, and especially television. Contextualising, in this galaxy of stars, is meaningless.

Critics should be the ultimate enthusiasts, interested in why something does or doesn’t work, placing it in some sort of context, explaining where necessary. This perhaps explains the reluctance, in London at least, to call a play average. The three-out-of-five grade is admittedly often avoided because it’s unenticing to readers, but there’s also a more genuine sense of elation (‘It was better than the last one’) or disgust (‘Another night I’ve not seen the kids’). Hence, two or four, but seldom three.

Within this continuum, the one-star is often of interest. Personally, I’d always wondered what would be the effect of Pinter if delivered at a normal speaking pace. Did the menace come as much from the words themselves as from the delivery? I hoped that it did. In Stoning Mary, Pinteresque at the Royal Court earlier this year, I was thoroughly disabused of this half-baked idea. It’s all in the delivery, and the effect of rapid-fire menace was deadening. An infuriating, fascinating, one-star evening. So in the right place, that evening’s worth five stars, surely? It taught audiences – well, me anyway – something that they could not have discovered elsewhere.

Five stars for being interesting? Or is that painfully patrician, to say go and you’ll learn something? Perhaps it is. So stars, supposedly to help would-be theatregoers, seem thus to be patronising and even obfuscating. But get rid of them? In London’s West End, most venues still prefer to hang purple prose above their doors rather than golden stars anyway, and in Edinburgh the Royal Mile is a sea of five-star shows, some created by clever arrangement of five one-star notices. Perhaps in all those things, there’s wit enough to justify their keeping.

Matt Warman currently writes about television for the Daily Telegraph.

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