Up at the Edinburgh Fringe, star ratings are everything. At least, that’s what we keep being told in opinion pieces like this one. Obviously, they’re useful to plaster on the promotional material when indecisive potential audiences are drowning in flyers on the Royal Mile or panicking outside the Half Price Hut. The problem is, of course, that nobody nowadays seems to listen to – or even have basic respect for – any star rating below four. Which makes the whole thing nonsensical.
In all honesty, there’s nothing essentially wrong with star ratings, it’s just that absolutely nobody – with no exceptions whatsoever – knows how to employ them. Three star ratings are now a badge of dishonour, and there isn’t a theatre company who would feel happy using them in its press. This, clearly, is just a little bit silly: it suggests that the absolute baseline of credibility is four stars and above, ignoring anything below. That means we ignore almost 75% of the possible opinion. That’s like saying that nobody under the age of fifty is worth listening to. Yes, I’m well aware that some of you have no problem with that. But we’re missing out here. The very existence of three stars at the end of a review should indicate something of value. Three stars worth of value, in fact. Hell, you don’t even get three stars on your badge in McDonald’s without seriously impressing the management.
Let’s look at things in reverse order. Five stars is the easiest to discuss, since, like standing in a line at for a show at the fringe that doesn’t have relatives of members of the company in it, it’s simply near-impossible to achieve. Five stars should be indicative of the very best of someone’s career: literally, it can’t get any better than this. That being said, we’ve all been guilty of throwing away five stars when we probably shouldn’t have. Even I have to confess doing so when overtired, distracted by a pretty face in a supporting role, and jacked up on far too many Tangtastics.
Following that then, is Four Stars. Four Stars is what we should be calling unmissable, what a few too many of us actually think is a five star rating. These are the shows that we excitedly tweet about on the way out, of the venue, the ones that we recommend to our friends when the show tours locally. But they are still not five stars. A four star show is merely excellent. Excellent is something to be proud of. What’s happened, of course, is that in recent years, we have got ourselves trapped in a ‘X Factor’ mentality – apparently, things have to be life changingly brilliant, or grimly awful. We’ve become embarrassed by thinking anything in between. We are now bewilderingly shy of being able to rave about something that we find wonderful while at the same time acknowledging that it needs improvement.
If all the above is true (cough: it is), this means that Three Stars is not, as we have tricked ourselves into believing, mundane and invisible, a rating to be embarrassed by. No, three stars is – or, in my not so humble opinion, should be – simply a very good show. As I’ve argued before, in any other industry you have to work damn hard to get three stars. Soldiers returning from battle are continually baffled by the amount of young dance troupes petulantly rejecting their three stars at the fringe.
If we accept that a three star rating is actually a hard-won compliment rather than a dismissal, then two and one star ratings can begin to make a lot more sense. A two star rating is for a show that is essentially sound, but fatally or near-fatally flawed by a couple of bad choices: perhaps the lead is horrifically miscast, or the dialogue is overwritten. What those two stars tell you however (or, should tell you, in this alternate universe I’ve just made up), particularly in an environment as volatile and cauldron-bubbly as the fringe, is that although this show has some way to go before improvement, it is still worth your time: the company deserves your attention and feedback so that they can continue to grow.
Which leaves us with the one star review. In this version of the world, a one star review would be exactly what it should sound like: a show with at least some merit. Yes, a one star show would be undeniably poor. It might be incoherent, or the jokes would be indistinguishable from the twitter feed of that old school friend you keep meaning to delete – but that one star would suggest that there was at least one saving grace: intelligent direction, perhaps, attempting to throw light on a half-baked script, or a clever set design.
I understand completely that I’m a lone voice. The star ratings aren’t going anywhere anytime soon unless you write – as I indeed do – for a site like FringeReview, which has adopted a policy of ‘if you can’t beat them, then refuse point blank to join them’, and has eschewed star ratings altogether. Equally, for those sites and publications that are still using star ratings, companies are only ever going to be interested in ratings of four and five, which, as I’ve pointlessly argued is insane. So it’s down to us to argue more eloquently in our reviews. Now, I’ve been known to dismiss myself as an online hack, but what I’m hacking still has some merit. Well, if not merit, certainly weight. Reviews are at their best when they are a discussion, the development of the reviewer’s own reaction to whatever it is they have seen in the theatre. It’s not good that we can have our arguments and thoughts reduced down into what is essentially a very unimaginative line of emojis. If star ratings are like a reviewer’s version of Schrödinger’s Cat – simultaneously meaningless and vital – then what we write below the line needs to be carefully considered. Lest we forget, the reviewers themselves can now punished (or rewarded) with star-style ratings, via sites like FringePig. A few more of those plastered over reviewer’s profiles could do more to change the ratings system than anything else ..