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There’s always someone, somewhere, complaining about star ratings. It’s often me. We complain about how they reduce a piece of art to a semi-arbitrary number, distract away from proper criticism and feed into the commodification of theatre. Recently, one strand of the ratings debate has reared its head again, this time regarding “niceness” and star inflation. Is our current crop of theatre critics giving away too many stars these days? Is our current theatrical landscape really good enough to warrant all these four- and five-star write-ups? No one’s truly in a position to say yay or nay, but it’s something which might teach us a lot about how British theatre currently works.
So is this assumption that critics have been overly nice recently a fair one? Well, looking back at the reviews of some of our leading critics, a trend begins to emerge. The last time Charles Spencer gave a show fewer than three stars was on 16th April, while Michaels Coveney and Billington gave one and two stars respectively to Fatal Attraction on 26th March. Notoriously nice Libby Purves awarded two stars on 14th April and you have to go back three weeks to find a one-star review from Lyn Gardner. Now, this is all relatively random – the critics I’ve looked at are hardly representative and, as I noted last month, it’s been a stunningly good few weeks for British theatre. But I still doubt whether, say, you or I were going to see many of these shows we’d be quite so generous. Yes, these shows might be of quality and well-produced but does that mean they’re any good? With the glut of four-star reviews we’ve seen recently, you’d think everything was worth watching. Which, of course, it isn’t.
There is, however, one critic who regularly gives low star ratings and bashes shows for the ideas presented in them: Quentin Letts. Now, before you get defensive, don’t for a minute think that I’m defending that snotty baron of reprehensible ethics – I believe Mr Letts to be just about the most abhorrent person currently writing about theatre and find myself disagreeing with almost every word he writes – but there is something to be said for the way he holds theatres and producers to account for what he sees as questionable decisions. He also doesn’t write about theatre so much, but his reviews certainly get people talking (even if it’s just to slag him off).
What we are missing is a critic in the mould of Kenneth Tynan, someone who is unafraid to take potshots at the individuals and institutions who – for one reason or another – they believe to be fundamentally wrong or misguided. Naturally, many people are going to disagree with them, but in order to have any kind of dialogue, critics need to put their necks on the line and say exactly what they think. Theatre is at its best when causing discussion, and we are all at our best when taking a stand on something. I’m sure, for example, that the current (re)production of Miss Saigon is of a high quality, but where are those speaking out against yet another re-hash of an old show? Surely the job of the critic is not just to review the content of a show but also review its context.
It’s worth noting that I’m just as much a part of this problem as anyone else; I can’t remember the last time I was properly critical in a review and rarely call people to account in public. It seems to me that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the current system of how critics pick which shows they see for review, with “first stringers” taking the large-scale openings and everyone else left fighting for everything else, meaning that the breadth of work any one person sees might not be so full of variety. We thus begin defining the shows we see in relation to other work of a similar scale and style rather than to the whole theatrical landscape; of course the latest show in the Lyttelton is going to be of higher technical quality than a fresh piece of work from a new company on the fringe, but that doesn’t mean the quality of thinking or the ideas presented is necessarily any better. We all need to see work which challenges us, and that means sending freelance, ad hoc critics to the new Andrew Lloyd Webber as well as getting the Billingtons of this world to see what Camden People’s Theatre has to offer.
Essentially, however, this is the same argument we’ve all been making for years rehashed; what is wrong is not necessarily the shows people are seeing or the way they are reviewing them but the fact we are in thrall to a system which commodifies art and fetishises glamour. The use of star ratings means critics are asked to assign a simple number to a show which may be extraordinarily complex and knotty with more value than any simple figure can describe. Until we demolish those structures, however, we just have to be a little more feisty with those pesky stars.