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Ask Lyn: What do you think about star ratings?

Ask Lyn: What do you think about star ratings?

Ask Lyn: What do you think about star ratings? cover photo on Stagedoor
Dear Lyn, I notice that there are no star ratings on your reviews for Stagedoor. But when I’m trying to choose a show to watch (online at the moment of course) I find star ratings helpful. So why not use them?” Nathan, via email.

Dear Nathan,

I guess the answer depends on the purpose that you think a review serves. If you want a quick, should-I-or-shouldn’t-I spend my time and money on this, then star ratings are useful.

But I’m with Great Aunt Cecily when she says that when she is buying a washing machine or a fridge, she is happy to be guided by the star rating given by testers, but that arts criticism is a much more subjective process. You really can’t measure the value of the latest Alan Bennett or Forced Entertainment show on the efficiency of its defrost mechanism. Or grade the latest Kneehigh show on whether it’s very noisy or averagely noisy.

Star ratings strike me as only useful if you know who is giving the rating. The only way to do that is to read what they write on a regular basis. Just glancing at the star ratings is meaningless. In order to understand the value of the one-star review of* Hamilton* on TripAdvisor you also have to read the comment that complains “rubbish music all done in rap. RAP!” Read that and immediately you know where that person is coming from.

Exactly the same applies to theatre reviews, whether they are written by paid or unpaid critics. If you don’t actually read the reviews written by Quentin Letts in The Sunday Times but only glance at the ratings, when he gives a show five stars or one star you have no idea on what basis he is making those pronouncements.

For critics to be of any use to you, you have to read them regularly to find out who there are, where they are coming from and how that aligns with your own ideas about theatre, art and life. Undoubtedly there are people who read my reviews and know that when I like something, they will hate it and vice versa. I can only applaud them loudly for using criticism in an intelligent way that helps them make decisions, and maybe sometimes directs them towards shows they might otherwise have considered seeing.

But I’d also add that I don’t think it’s my job to sell tickets (although I am well aware that what I write might make affect ticket sales, adversely or to the good). The tendency of theatres to simply rely on the shorthand of star ratings when marketing shows is one that devalues criticism. But more importantly it devalues the complexity, context and nuance of the work that artists are making.

Star ratings are a very blunt instrument. Detached from a review and pasted outside a theatre or all over the publicity, they play into the idea that what artists do is easy, and can be graded exactly like a spin dryer. A spin dryer has no nuance. It either works efficiently or it doesn’t. Do artists really want their art to be valued on its efficiency and perceived value for money?

So, I feel really strongly that star ratings sell artists short and they sell theatre criticism short too. But I know that I’m on the wrong side of history with this one, but for the moment I stand firm and admire all those bloggers and sites such as Exeunt who are doing the same. It’s a small hill, but it’s an important one.

Cover photo by fotografierende on Unsplash

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Lyn Gardner

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