Theatre Critic and Journalist

Thank your five lucky stars for those critics who take a leap of faith

Thank your five lucky stars for those critics who take a leap of faith

Published on the Guardian Theatre Blog, 13.09.2010

Under the artistic direction of Dominic Cooke, the Royal Court is beginning to resemble a belt shop for oversized Orions. Last week, Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park became the latest Court offering to garner a milky way of its own, eliciting five stars from the critics at the Times, the Daily Mail, the Evening Standard and Time Out. Leaving aside the flaws in the system – and let’s face it, judging from previous debates on these pages, we’re all pretty keen on shooting stars – the question remains: what does this critical constellation mean?

There’s a big difference between four- and five-star shows, as evidenced by the relative abundance of the former and – even in this so-called golden age – scarceness of the latter. You have to go as far back as August 2009 to find Lyn Gardner’s last full house (Love Letters Straight from Your Heart, since you ask). A production can be entirely successful – vivid and vibrant, fiercely intelligent, roaringly enjoyable and deeply emotive – and still not merit that final accolade. Even that old critical chestnut, a ”must-see” event, doesn’t necessarily confer top marks. To earn that fifth star, must theatre be more than unmissable?

Clearly we’re not talking about perfection. No one would maintain the existence of such a thing. What about definitive? Even that suggests finality and conclusiveness; that a particular production cannot be bettered. There’s a nagging sense that each play has only one five-star production in it. But tastes change, theatre changes. Definitive means different things at different times. And what about definitive productions of flawed texts or vice versa?

Better, perhaps, to use the term “seminal”, which infers a piece of theatre that lodges itself into theatre history; one that has a significant influence on the practice of those around it. Again though, unsuccessful productions can do that. It’s often the case that initial experiments, formative though they are, don’t quite come off themselves. Equally, there are five-star shows that just do what they do exquisitely – think Jeremy Sams’s National Theatre revival of Noises Off. Besides, who goes to the theatre seeking a show that will ultimately prove pivotal? We go for the experience alone, to be entertained, challenged and delighted, perhaps even educated.

“Life-changing” seems a bit much to ask, and memorable falls short. So what: joyous? Rapturous? Vital? Of course, facetiousness aside, there’s no formula. We can’t judge theatre, multifarious as it is, according to a single goal. For me, a five-star rating is a very personal judgment – as reflective of the critic in question as the show itself. Four stars can be given grudgingly, but five is a real statement of belief. It says: “This is what theatre can do.” It says: “If only all theatre were this good.” It says: “This is what I believe theatre ought to be doing.” It looks to the future.

Because there’s always a reason not to give five stars. Fault can always be found. To give five is a leap of faith. It is to set oneself up for judgment, to put one’s head above the parapet and have the courage of your convictions. There’s risk in that, and critics deserve credit for doing so. Not five stars, though: it is their job, after all.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>