Sunday, 12 August 2012

Rating Mania! Five Stars if you mention me.

Now that Lyn Gardner from The Guardian has mentioned it, I feel more comfortable blowing off some steam about star ratings. I mostly love the Fringe because it is the only time that anyone pays much attention to the critics, and I repay the compliment by becoming obsessed with the worth of various magazine's output. Gardner is succinct and subtle: she notes that the stars awarded by the newspapers are "different" to those awarded by the Fringe only publications (the temptation to regard The Herald and Scotsman as more important is rarely avoided by those who have got good ratings from them), before piously hoping that audiences recognise this difference.

My ratings rant is best expressed by way of an example.

 I am just out of Formby, written by and starring Ewan Wardrop. It's a jolly little show, tracing the life of Wigan's comedy ukulele strumming film star. It's tough to get tragedy from Formby's life: he was a success, died soon after his wife and kept clear of any big scandals. His wife and manager Beryl is the acknowledged power behind his cheeky chappy persona and (almost rude) tunes: they had good politics (Beryl annoyed the South African regime) and did sterling work during WWII as entertainers.

For me, it's a solid three stars, if we must. Wardrop hasn't quite got Formby's voice or mannerisms off pat, but his time as part of Matthew Bourne's company pays off when he becomes Beryl and knocks out a tap number. Most importantly, he can tell a good story, charm the crowd  strum the Formby way, catching the syncopation that made his numbers stand out from the clod-hopping beat of most ukulele players.

Of course, that three stars has nothing in common with the three stars I'd give to Do Theatre for Hangman. That has a bigger cast, who poke around at the way that words can replace the thing itself, and, using the children's game as a metaphor, question the power of the word and its absence. It's all dark, very Russian and physical theatre. Although both shows gain my approval because of the way they use movement - and I am judging similar qualities, like performance, or use of the space, or script - one's a cheeky half-hour of fun, the other's a pretty serious provocation.

So, even within one critic's little world, there is variation. All that the stars really add is a slight suggestion of quality. The real reason an audience member goes for one show over another is that they are more interested in the content.

Star inflation is only possible to measure if there is a set of values shared by companies and critics - and I don't even see my star rating as meaning the same thing in different genres. Three stars means good enough, four is a bit more exciting, five means it changed my life... and you ought to see them, if you care about the content.

Besides, stars don't make audiences. There's a show that has nothing but four and five star reviews, from the mainstream and Fringe media. I saw it last night, and there were three other people there.

How many people read the reviews? And how many people read the reviews of reviews? I only wrote this to see whether the other critics would find it.

1 comment :

  1. I found it! Do I get a prize?

    Not read Lyn on stars, but I was at a session on the star system at the Devoted and Disgruntled Roadshow in Edinburgh a fortnight past.

    Much was waffled on, but Gary McNair came up with quite a punchy idea - as he does. He suggested that all critics should be rated, according to the average number of stars they have given over the last year. That way, a four star rating from a habitual three starer (such as yourself) would be worth a lot more than from a habitual four starer.

    This will be called the McNair Constellation.

    Full details of the session here:
    If you are interested...