Editorial: A new approach to star ratings

As we launch The Arts Dispatch we are also changing our approach to review ratings

What’s in a star rating?

One of the most difficult aspects of reviewing theatre is the star rating system. It’s easier when a show is very obviously incredibly good or very obviously poor – but, more often than not, it’s less clear cut. For what it’s worth, I have always worked on the basis that the star system roughly equates to:

  • Five stars = Excellent
  • Four stars = Very Good
  • Three stars = Good
  • Two stars = Poor
  • One star = Very Poor

That makes it look simple – if you think a show is good but not very good then it’s three stars. If a show poor but not very poor then it’s two stars. Easy. But there’s much more nuance to it that a star rating just can’t capture, which is why sometimes it feels like an impossible conundrum trying to decipher what the ‘correct’ rating is.

‘A quick and dirty critical tradition’

This is magnified by the kind of timelines that most reviewers, particularly professional reviewers work to. A reviewer at a press night might be applauding the final bow at 10pm and have their review online by midnight – or at least by early morning. Not much time, then, to write a nuanced review and then decide which number of stars should go with it.

And reviewers themselves don’t particularly like them: former chief theatre critic at the Guardian Michael Billington described star ratings as ‘abominations.’ In an interview with The Fence he said, “I remember [when] they started to come in. We had meetings as critics. We told our editors that we didn’t like them. And they would say: ‘Oh! We have to because the public love them.’ Now they are part of the landscape.”

And they are definitely part of the landscape now – but only in the UK. On the other side of the Atlantic, Broadway critics do not use star ratings. But does the public love them? That’s open to debate.

Billington’s successor Arifa Akbar has not dissimilar views, calling theatre reviewing ‘theatre reviewing is by its nature only ever an overnight response. A quick and dirty critical tradition, …theatre reviewing is a more gut reaction, less penetrating because of its narrow deadline.’

The negative impact of a negative rating

What star ratings also fail to do is to communicate that it is one person’s opinion. You should be able to read a review and think, ‘OK, this reviewer has articulated that it wasn’t for them but that it could be for me.’ With a negative star rating attached, many people may do that, but many others possibly don’t even bother to read the review.

Billington argues that “what [star ratings] do is short circuit the readers’ response, and they don’t bother to fully engage with the review itself.” How many more people might discover a show that could be for them but didn’t make it past the star rating? A casual reader may only read the reviews from one publication. For example, this week someone may skim through The Times theatre section, see the one-star review for Mates in Chelsea at the Royal Court and not bother with reading the review or the production – but they won’t see the four-star review in the Telegraph that may have piqued their interest. That’s just part of the negative impact of a negative star rating.

There are benefits to star ratings though – they do provide good marketing material. Enough four and five-star reviews on a poster is enough to scream ‘universal acclaim!’ and making it easier to sell theatre to people feels like a good thing. So where’s the balance?

A new approach

Timeout ditched one and two-star ratings earlier this year, with those shows now going unrated, while star ratings remain for ‘positive’ reviews. Which feels like a problem changed, not solved. We still know it’s either a one or two-star review, so what’s the difference?

But they’re probably on to something – thinking back to those shows that are ‘very obviously incredibly good,’ it would be good to be able to label those shows in such a way that acknowledges that while maintaining the nuance of a well written review. A kind of gold star… except there’s five of them.

And that is going to be the approach we trial as we relaunch as The Arts Dispatch. Excellent shows will be awarded a five-star rating, as they would currently – and they will be the only shows that we will award a star rating. All other shows will have their various combinations of positive, neutral and negative traits detailed in a nuanced review that hasn’t been already pigeonholed into a star rating bracket.

Let’s see how it goes.

Update 13 December 2023: One month into our trial and we’ve had lots of positive feedback about the approach, as well as some reservations. As part of our approach, we are now reinstating four-star ratings.