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Fewer stars and ovations please

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs …” Thanks, Kipling. Yes, I do try. Especially at the end of a mediocre show when mates of the cast are leaping to their feet in whooping, enthusiastic support which quickly spreads to most of the rest of the audience like a form of theatrical mass hysteria.  I also endeavour to hang on to my head when I know perfectly well that the bright eyed young blogger next to me is probably going to give this weak show several stars because he or she is getting carried away in the heat of the moment.  Keeping your head seems to be a fairly rare skill in theatre goers these days, even among the ones who are meant to be able to make a dispassionate judgment.

A standing ovation should be a rarity to be treasured. If nearly every show gets one then it means nothing. “When everybody’s somebody then no one’s anybody” as W S Gilbert neatly puts it in The Gondoliers. The very first standing ovation I was ever present at was at Royal Festival Hall in 1965 when Igor Stravinsky made his farewell visit to London. He came on stage to conduct the Firebird suite and, well, you can imagine what the audience as one, did. It was a very special moment and as a (very!) young music lover I felt deeply honoured to be there. These days shows nearly all seem to get standing ovations, or partial ones, and that’s a pity because it detracts from the value.

It’s exactly the same with the 5* review which is perhaps – or should be –  a considered, reasoned, written form of standing ovation. I think I have only ever given three or four in over 20 years of reviewing. It’s meant to indicate your view that this show is one of the best of its type ever produced – not that it was a pleasant evening out.

A single star, on the other hand means exactly the opposite: one of the worst shows of this sort ever staged. And oh dear, I’ve seen too many of those recently: Both Scooby-Doo! Live Musical Mysteries and last week’s Crime and Punishment: Rock Musical fell into that category. And I regard Hello Kitty Live, which I had the misfortune to review last year,  as the nadir of awfulness by which to measure all others. And those are just examples.

The truth is, of course, that the vast majority of shows should be 3* (if a star system is used at all and one of the publications I write for still resists it). It is an indication that the production under discussion is perfectly decent, quite good in fact, entertainment – and worth seeing if you have a free evening.  Unfortunately too many reviewers fail to keep their heads and waltz off into gush mode which means stars get scattered like confetti. It’s a bit like GCSE and A level grades which keep getting extra layers on the top to indicate excellence.  How long before we get six or seven star theatre reviews?

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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