What is the point of star ratings? It is the argument to which the discourse around theatre criticism relentlessly returns like a moth to a lightbulb. On the one side are the idealists. They argue that to assign ratings to art is reductive, and that the system of stars is nowhere near nuanced enough to express meaningful criticism. On the other side are the pragmatists. They accept that star ratings are flawed, but point out that they are necessary to assist the time-poor ticket-buyer and show producer alike. After all, they say, nothing sells tickets like five-stars plastered across the poster – and the theatre industry relies on selling tickets.
Every think-piece published on star-ratings in the last twenty years essentially elucidates one – or both – of those positions, in one form or another, and nothing really changes. So why bother asking the question again? Because, in 2020, something has changed. As the performing arts industry has transformed, making its much-discussed “pivot to online”, so too has the world of theatre criticism. Trust me, I’ve experienced it first-hand.
The first online theatre thing I reviewed, way back in May, was an audio adaptation of David Nicholls’ novel The Understudy, produced by Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre. I remember putting my headphones in, taking the dog for a long walk in the sunshine – my daily dose of state-sanctioned exercise – and letting Stephen Fry shepherd me through the tragi-comic story of actor Steve McQueen and his ill-fated employment as a West End stand-in.
It wasn’t great, to be honest – a bit uneven and a bit twee. It was a two-star experience – sorry guys! – but I couldn’t bring myself to be that mean. I gave it three stars. Dozens of live-streamed performances, audio adaptations and Zoom-plays followed, and the same dilemma repeatedly resurfaced. I found myself giving three stars to shows that deserved two, and four stars to shows that deserved three.
And I started spotting the same trend elsewhere. At the time of writing, The Stage has only awarded one two-star rating in the last fifty reviews it has published. The Guardian has given out two. TimeOut has done away with star-ratings altogether, something Exeunt did a long time ago. You can sense a distinct softening of blows in the column inches, as well. A surge of sympathy. A cascade of compassion. Everywhere you look, the critics are being kind.
From one perspective, this is a problem. How will audiences know if something is good or not, if the reviews are consistently over-praising stuff? How will they know where to spend their hard-earned cash, without reliable star-ratings to guide them? And what about the documentary function of criticism? Do the critics not feel the weight of history on their shoulders? Do they not think of the future student of theatre having to decipher their dishonesty? Oh, where are the stoical critics of old? Bring back Billington! Disinter Tynan! Reanimate Hazlitt!
But those questions stem from what we might term a traditionalist view of criticism, one that conceives of its solely as consumer guide or passive reportage. The view that holds that a critic’s responsibility is either to help theatregoers get the best bang for their buck, or to help write the history of the art form as it happens. The consumer-focussed view of criticism that has, by and large, prevailed in modern British theatre and its wider, capitalist context. And – like a lot of other erstwhile certainties that have been eroded over the last nine months – I’m not sure that view holds true, anymore, when there’s a vastly restricted range of ‘new’ shows to pick from, and most of them are remounts or rapid responses, produced under impossible circumstances.
Actually, I’m not sure it has ever held true. Theatre criticism – as demonstrated by Exeunt, among others – is far more fluid, far more active, and far more empathetic than that. It can evolve and adapt to its context. Yes, sometimes it should act as consumer guide. Yes, sometimes it should act as passive reportage. Heck, sometimes it should even be an artform in itself. And sometimes – right now, for example – it should show a bit more heart. Even if that means being less than 100% honest.
When you look for it, the fluidity and flexibility of theatre criticism is obvious. There are myriad factors involved – the editorial stance of the publication, the provenance of the production, the individual attitude of the critic – and, while the traditionalist, consumer-focussed approach has dominated in certain spheres (a national newspaper reviewing a commercial West End opening, say), there have always been contexts that demand more compassion (indie publications at fringe festivals and student shows, for example).
Considering criticism from this angle, then, there is nothing particularly problematic about the outpouring of kindness in reviews. It is criticism operating as criticism should, adapting to the dire circumstances surrounding the work presented to it, and exercising some empathy. Theatre critics, even the ones you hate the most, are human, and they will even behave like one in certain circumstances.
What, then, about the questions raised above? Is the ticket-buyer being misled? Are the history books being corrupted? Are the critics guilty of lying? Well, yes to all three. But the truth is that ’twas ever thus. This may come as a bit of a surprise, but theatre criticism has always been a little bit dishonest, or at least reliant on shorthands to avoid sticking the knife in. The intelligent review-reader can still learn all they need to know by taking this into account.
Just ask any critic who has accidentally stumbled into a student show at the Edinburgh Fringe, produced at a loss of several thousands of pounds and performed in a dank basement at 9am in the morning. Yes, it’s rubbish, but look at their wee faces, see how hard they are trying, think of the hopes and dreams that will be shattered if you don’t massage the brutal truth a tiny bit. In such cases, it is humanly impossible not to find an extra star from somewhere.
That is essentially the situation that the entirety of British theatre finds itself facing at the moment; if the world is just one big festival, then the performing arts industry is currently having to perform in that dingy cellar in the early morning, and is losing hundreds of millions of pounds in income for the privilege.
So, what is the point of theatre criticism right now? Actually, it is the same as it has always been – to adapt to circumstances. At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, it is to be a friend to the theatre industry. It is to champion, to encourage, and to support the performing arts in more so than usual. It is to prioritise the emotional and economic wellbeing of the people behind a productions, to couch criticism compassionately, and – above all – it is to be kind. It is to learn from the John Lewis advert and give a little love.
What, then, is the point of star ratings? Well, I’m not sure there is one at the moment. They belong to a different kind of criticism – a consumer-focused criticism that hasn’t existed for nearly a year now – and I would be happier if I didn’t have to arbitrarily assign them. But if we do have to continue the charade with the world collapsing around us, then fuck it. I am totally fine with adding a few on here and there.
Because, let’s face it, (almost) everyone in theatre deserves five stars this year.