The Star System

To star or not to star – that is The Question…

Editors love them, critics abhor them, casual readers find them useful, performers wish they had more and psychologists wouldn’t mind if there were seven.

Every paper and website has its own criteria for handing out stars – or “zits” as one of my colleagues calls them. Here are those adopted on All Edinburgh Theatre:

★★★★★ – Fantastic! A truly great piece which you would find it nearly impossible to better.

★★★★☆ – Great stuff! A few elements which might detract from the overall performance, but not too many.

★★★☆☆ – Very good. A strong and assured performance of the kind this company should be making.

★★☆☆☆ – Fair attempt. But well within this company’s capabilities to improve.

★☆☆☆☆ – Oh dear! Lazy, slack or just plain bad: This company should do much, much better.

Personally, I don’t like the star system. I consistently agonise over how many stars to award – when I should be writing my copy – and I’m with the psychologists in supporting a seven point system of grading.

That’s not star inflation, but a considered opinion I have held ever since I first heard of the idea of giving stars. The point is that we only have a five point system because of the blinkered obsession with the decimal system. It’s quite natural, I suppose, but if you asked a mathematician what they would choose, the considered response would be seven. Indeed, psychologists use a seven point system when they want to assess the state of mind of their patients.

Any competent star-rating system has to out of a prime number. Which, at least, the five-star officionados got right. Eleven is just too high a number for people to make any meaningful diferentiation between the grades. Five is too course a grading system, there is not enough nuance.

Seven is ideal: it’s a prime number; it is small enough for people to get their heads round but it has a large enough number of gradings to provide a bit of shading between the upper and lower levels.

But we are stuck with five – so be it.

How to award them, then. That’s where it starts getting tricky. Firstly there’s the idea that they should be subjective to the creators of a piece: every company should be equally able as any other to get five stars – or one star come to that. But what would be a five star show for an amateur company on limited resources wouldn’t get as many stars if it was produced by the National Theatre of Scotland with its huge pool of talent and major subsidy. So in some way, expectation comes into play. And it means that the better a company gets, the harder it will be for them to get a five star rating.

Then there’s the idea – and this is the mathematician in me talking again – that over a period of time, you would expect the star ratings awarded by any one critic to fall into a bell curve. So there would an equal – and small – number of productions which got one and five stars; an equal – and rather larger – number of productions which achieved two and four stars; and a larger number again of productions which got three stars.

Which is not actually the case – a one-star production is much rarer than a  five star production, thanks to the effort that most companies put into their shows. Lazy  professional touring companies, packed with television celebrities who are clearly bored and would rather be somewhere else, are the main culprits. Then there are the egotistical directors and writers who refuse to moderate their artistic ideas to the capabilities of the companies they are working with.

Two star productions are not necessarily bad. It’s a could do better for the production, but might be a perfectly acceptable evening out for the audience.