They are, as Lyn Gardner put it, a blunt tool but they are a bloody persuasive blunt tool and lemme tell you why I don’t think they deserve the ‘bane of my life’ status so often attributed them by theatre critics.
When I invite my friends to the theatre, I have to convince them to come with me – and not just because my company is sub par but – for two main reasons 1) a lot of my friends aren’t ‘theatre people’ (crude term, hate using it) and they don’t feel welcome at the theatre 2) they’re not convinced the theatre is the best use of their time i.e they haven’t been persuaded enough by what theatres put out there, nor do they have any nostalgia about theatre. As with me, it was completely absent from their childhoods.
Tell them I’ve got a spare film ticket on the other hand, and I can’t give it away fast enough. And, key to this, it rarely matters what film it is I’m reviewing, who’s in it or even what era it’s from. Genre matters, sure. But beyond that they’re willing to experiment, to see new things by artists they haven’t heard of. Their relationship with theatre is so different.
For these friends, star-ratings are an important stepping stone towards where you might want them to be. These are the people who don’t necessarily care enough about theatre (yet) to have a whole conversation with me about a show they haven’t seen but who care enough to ask me what I thought of a play. They get in reply (because remember, I know this won’t be a long conversation): It was ok/ It was really good/ It was brilliant/ and the killer “you should see it” ← and those right there are my star-ratings. They are reductive, they say very little about the play but they are real, they happen in conversations and their value shouldn’t be ignored.
They are the persuasive blunt tool that gets people talking and more importantly, really thinking about going to the theatre. And don’t underestimate those people, that almost audience, because if you get them in and you impress them, you make them feel welcome, they’ll come back with friends, guests and family. They’ll put money up for tickets and give your editor a reason to publish your fantastic critique and they’ll look it up, they’ll chew over your ideas but you have to actually give a damn about them first.
And just as my friends come back to me after they’ve seen a show I once mentioned to them, to have a longer conversation now that they too have an opinion on it; this emerging audience might well come back to your critique after they’ve seen the show to think about your opinions and maybe, hopefully, offer some of their own.