Three Stars Good – Two Stars Bad
Star ratings attached to reviews have long been a heavily debated issue. Most reviews in British national papers, which are still held in highest regard, never used to add star ratings, relying instead on the text to give the reader a full picture of a show’s merits and limitations. We are constantly being told that the average person has ‘less and less time to read,’ meaning on the whole that reviews have become shorter in length as even the nationals have begun cutting back on arts coverage as a whole. It is now, sadly, the stars attached the review and not the text that precious PR companies who have inflated themselves up the food chain in the theatre industry are interested in – something that has, in my opinion, begun to get out of hand.
The five-star review system is commonplace in many different areas of life – from hotel and travel to product reviews on Amazon, and comes with very few areas of confusion. Stars are a highly visual symbol and cut across many languages – ideal for theatre, which relies heavily on tourists. No matter where you’re from, you can tell at a glance if something is ‘excellent’ (5 stars) or ‘poor’ (1 star). What falls between these two gate posts is a contentious area of debate, and an area that is sadly becoming stretched.
PR companies within the theatre industry have one job – sell their show. They don’t always care about the product, are emotionally removed from the creative process and are not there to comment on the quality of the show they may be peddling. One of my first job interviews out of university was with a major West End PR firm who made each candidate ‘pitch’ a show that they were covering at the time. Presenting my (probably awful) ideas, I was shocked to find out that the account manager handling the show had no idea who had written the play, or indeed which West End venue it was transferring into. This taught me enough about their little world to know exactly how vested they were with the product – their job was clearly to shift tickets.
Reviews are a vital cog in that wheel, and can easily be manipulated to suit the needs of however PR firms want to use them, something that Mark Shenton recently discussed in relation to the West End production of ‘The Commitments’ who boldly took a quote firmly out of context and twisted a negative into a positive to suit their ends. Star ratings provide the ideal certification to be slapped onto whatever poster, flyer, leaflet or handout is necessary to try and draw in the crowds, but how often are these coming from credible sources?
There seems to be a definitive rank of reviewers which not only creates competition for the productions, but for the PR and marketing of the reviewers themselves. Those writing for established publications such as The Guardian, Telegraph or The Times carry extra weight when compared to internet based publications, even though, it could be argued, these have much wider reach and potential for conversion. Online publications such as The Arts Desk and WhatsonStage have spent many years climbing to the top of the slippery pole, and are now beginning to be held in high regard, something that can be qualified by their appearance on marketing material.
In the age where any person with a computer can set up a website, the market for reviewers has become overly saturated, and hundreds of people are trying to shout through the noise to make themselves heard. Obviously an increase in theatre coverage must be looked on as a positive, but it is the effect that these ‘blogs’ have on the nature of reviewing that is unsettling – particularly in relation to star ratings.
A number of London based blogs have attempted to rise above the noise by purposefully giving overly positive reviews to shows where good reviews are scarce. Nowhere was this more obvious than with the 2012 flop musical ‘Viva Forever’ which was unanimously panned amongst anyone with eyeballs, including at least one of the Spice Girls and her husband. Some websites spotted their chance to use this to their advantage, consciously going against the grain to offer the golden chalice for PR – a five star review. With little else to latch onto, Arabella, Fennella, Felicity and Sebastian (catch-all names for those who work in arts PR) jumped at the chance to brandish this all over their marketing materials, without any real attention paid to where the review has come from.
If this was a one off, you may be able to let it slide. Yes, Viva Forever was the worst thing to ever happen to theatre, but you can consciously believe that someone somewhere had a good time. Reviews are by their very nature subjective, and we are all entitled to our own opinions. When this happens again and again however, patterns emerge, and it’s clear to those looking from the outside that games are being played, and reviewers have begun to promote themselves as much as the shows they are supposed to be promoting. Exactly why they do this becomes clear when they start appearing at press nights and industry events – sadly not through the merits of their skill, but because the belief that they can be ‘bought’ by PRs.
This method has sadly been adopted by a number of websites, who are often called out on their methods, but after all ‘that’s showbusiness’ and it’s an industry where everyone has to do what they can to get ahead. What upsets me about this primarily is how these reviews begin to devalue star ratings in the eyes of PR companies, and then ultimately the public themselves. In the five-point scale, three stars is traditionally looked on as being ‘good.’ Not perhaps ‘excellent’ or ‘life changing,’ but a good, strong, solid production. ‘Star Inflation’ is growing more and more common, fuelled by reviewers themselves fighting to have their website included in press cuttings, posters and news articles, with the emphasis on promoting their brand rather than providing a critical response to a show.
Having worked as a reviewer, age and experience is your best skill. You quickly develop your own spectrum, from the best thing you’ve ever seen (for me that was Rob Ashford’s ‘Parade’ at the Donmar Warehouse) to the worst (a toss up between ‘Great Expectations’ at the Vaudeville or a summer stock production of ‘The Music Man’ at the Shawnee Playhouse, PA which was accompanied by MIDI files…). Everything you see falls within your own personal spectrum, and I use this to judge my own star ratings.
I’m not professing my method to be in anyway ideal or fool proof, but it works for me, and allows me to contextualize everything I see, and offer a consistent breadth of opinion. In my opinion, the most backlash I have received concerning reviews, comes not from my 1 or 2 star reviews, but my 3 stars. In two examples I have been contacted by PR companies, angry with a 3 star review and have asked if I could be persuaded to see the show a second time in order to “bump it up” to a four star.
Sadly it’s not just in theatre where PR’s have taken the same level of control. Friends who work in magazines tell me similar stories of celebrities being ‘bargained’ for interviews, depending on what star-rating the publication gives their latest album/workout DVD or reality TV show, resulting in a phrase that I hear far too often: “let’s keep the PR’s happy.”
It seems that 3-star reviews are simply not good enough at selling, and so are seen as being ultimately useless. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical Stephen Ward recently announced its closing notice, despite mixed to positive reviews. Whilst it achieved 3-stars from three of Britain’s most established publications, the Independent, The Guardian and The Observer , the show’s official website instead chooses to publish 5 star reviews from online blogs without anywhere near the same level of credibility, experience or authority. But they do provide the sought after visual of five shining stars.
So who ultimately suffers? I work with actors who have just graduated from drama school, eager to read reviews and gain feedback. It’s crushing to see how disappointed they are to read a 3-star review from an established and confident publication, and how excited they are to see a 5-star from an internet blogger who in many cases doesn’t even show their real name or face, and fails to work out the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re.’ It’s a shame that this difference exists, and despite the excellent coverage given to London theatre, sad to see it at the mercy of opportunities for self-promotion.