Essay: On Awarding Stars.

One of a reviewer’s tasks is to award a show a number of stars, between one and five. It’s a simple way of indicating if the show works, if it’s worth seeing, if it’s a work of genius, or if it is irredeemably bad, so there are upsides. It is also the metric by which shows are put up for end of season awards, and that is a bit problematic. If other reviewers are more generous with their stars than me, and they are, their picks for ‘best show’, win. But…

(Photo by Reg Wilson -RSC)

I can’t make distinctions as bold or as crude as one, two, three, four, five stars, so I cheat and use half-stars. And I find it hard to conceive of shows so wonderful I’d give them five, or so awful I’d give them one. In a theatre-going life stretching back to 1970, I’ve seen four shows to which I would give five stars: Peter Brook’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Aldwych in 1970,  Billie Whitelaw in “Not I” at the Royal Court in 1973, the RSC production of Shakespeare’s History plays, eight of them, at the Roundhouse in 2008, and Aoife Duffin in “A Girl is a Half Formed Thing” at the Young Vic in 2016. That isn’t a lot of five-star shows, but it’s pretty rarefied company.

By contrast, there’s only one show I’ve seen that I’d give one star, which is Daniel Kramer’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” at Shakespeare’s Globe, in 2017. That was a show so unremittingly awful that not even Kirsty Bushell could help it, and all done deliberately, by theatre-makers who I assume have some competence. Being bad because you can’t help it is a one and a half star problem, being Daniel Kramer and choosing to make a piece that appalling makes it the only one-star crime I’ve ever watched. “Girl from the North Country” was bad, but there was Shirley Henderson in her own little play, and she’s amazing, and Sheila Atim is always worth watching, so I’d give that two stars for Henderson and Atim.

I can’t actually bring to mind any redeeming features for Jamie Lloyd’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” at the Playhouse in 2020. Martin Crimp wrote stuff that offended my ears, the blocking was so far down-stage I couldn’t see anyone acting, though I got to watch James McAvoy mooching in the three-quarters of a playing area no-one used, and everyone wore mics, which is always a winning costume choice. It had a sort of ramshackle energy though. Terrible but not worthless. One and a half stars.

And for two nights at the King’s Head in Upper Street, in 2019, Emma Lucia and Talia Pick performed “How We Begin” by Elisabeth Lewerenz with acting so true and delicate, and direction so sure-footed, that I gave it four and a half stars, and wished I could give it more, but it was just extraordinarily good, not boundary-redefining, so it didn’t get all five.

(Photo by Charlie Sambrook)

That’s how I do it, and those are my parameters. Other reviewers make other choices, and maybe their five-star picks are as good as mine, though that would mean I’ve missed loads of off-the-charts good theatre, which would be a great pity. But if I give a show four or five stars, it’s because I think everyone should try to see it; whatever reputation I have, I’m staking it.

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