Right, before we get into the grit and nasty part of this blog, I would just like to put out a bit of a disclaimer: The following article contains is not aimed at anyone who is producing work in the city of Liverpool and surrounding areas. I love each and every one of you ballsy bastards who dare to put a piece of their soul on display for audiences to come and see. I admire you all and will give all of the time in the world to celebrate new work and offer a platform for new artists to express themselves. This piece is not about slagging new work or artists. It is about the people who review these productions and a growing effect I believe they are having to the fantastic arts scene in this city.
As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve recently thrown myself back into the world of the Liverpool arts scene and I’m seriously impressed at the sheer amount of work that is being pumped out of so many different venues across the city centre and further afield. There is, however, a niggling feeling that I simply cannot get away from and felt I really needed to address:
Why are there so many 5 star reviews flying about?
Seriously, why on Earth are so many blogs, websites and reviewers smashing out 5 star reviews for shows and productions that, quite frankly, are nowhere near that standard, or at least the standard that 5 star productions used to be held to anyway?
In the past two months alone, I have been to see over a dozen productions at various venues around the city. From that dozen, nearly half of the performances I have seen have been given 5 star reviews from multiple sources.
So, if 0 out of 5 stars is the very worst a production can get, then logic dictates that 5 stars are the very best that a performance can be. A 5 star review means that the production the reviewer has just witnessed is the cream of the crop, the best of the best, nothing short of perfect. In their opinion, it cannot possibly get any better than in its current form…
Really, theatre reviewers and bloggers of Liverpool? Really? You HONESTLY believe that there have been nearly six shows in Liverpool in the past two months that are perfect?… REALLY!?
Sorry, but I’m not having this.
Just for the record, I am not naïve and do recognise that each show must be taken as it comes and therefore there must be a degree of leniency in terms of how you rate and review a show. However, that doesn’t mean that just because a small studio space doesn’t have the sheer wow factor as the likes of London’s grand theatre’s, it should automatically get its 3 star review bumped up to 5 stars, does it?
Surely, there is no way that there have been nearly half a dozen PERFECT shows in the past two months in Liverpool. Quite frankly, I am absolutely astonished, as not one of the shows I have seen since the turn of the year deserve the status of 5 stars… Now, please don’t misinterpret that as me labelling all the productions I have seen recently as poor and crap. The shows I have seen recently are good productions – some of them really bloody good – that all have legs and could be developed even further into fantastic pieces of theatre, right in the heart of Liverpool! But they weren’t quite the finished article and so cannot possibly be given the status of 5 stars as they all had some room for improvement.
Want to know why I am convinced the reviews in Liverpool are skewed in favour of easily achievable 5 stars? Take a look at other reviews around the country and tell me there isn’t a case of bias taking place in Liverpool, I dare you. Have a look at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and see how people have raved about Maxine Peake in a re-imagining of Beckett’s Happy Days. Want to know how many stars that got near enough across the board? 4 stars.
Let’s take it even further shall we? Jez Butterworth’s incredible piece of theatre: Jerusalem – which is labelled as one of the best pieces of new writing in the 21st century – still only really achieves 4 star status from the most respected sources such as The Guardian. Surprisingly, The Stage only managed to give Jerusalem a 3 star review, but still label the production as a good piece of theatre – which is what a 3 star performance should be labelled as.
So why on earth are some of the best and most reputable shows and productions only managing three and four star productions across the board, yet if I go down to one of Liverpool’s fringe venues I can see a five star showstopper that should, theoretically, blow Jerusalem out of the water? Are the big boys of the reviewing world such as The Stage and The Guardian, missing something by not coming down to these productions? Or does something smack of a lack of scrutiny and professionalism in the Liverpool theatre and reviewer scene?
In case you’re wondering how I believe the star rating system should work, I’ve created a lovely little flowchart for you to ponder and possibly confirm exactly how it is that we should be grading these delightful productions:
This problem of easy reviews is far from a good thing for the arts industry in Liverpool if you ask me. If anything, it has the potential to cause some very big problems for the city’s arts sector. In the very short term, it is actually a snidely clever move. Bash out a load of 5 star reviews for performances that aren’t actually up to that title and it creates a feel good factor in the industry. Anyone who reads the reviews, gets excited and goes off to buy a ticket for the next big thing that just so happens to be at a fringe venue in Liverpool. Meanwhile for the performers themselves, it provides a morale boost and lifts the energy on stage as well as gifting them with an influx of more bums on seats to perform to.
But what happens in the long term? What happens when the people who have paid good money to see these performances leave feeling like they’ve been mugged off after paying £15 for a 5 star performance that was actually 3 star (which is still a bloody good standard)? What happens when people stop turning up to theatres because they don’t trust reviews anymore and actors have fewer and fewer audience members to perform to? As I said above, I firmly believe that this has the potential to have a lasting impact on theatres in Liverpool; and not in a good way.
By handing out 5 star reviews willy nilly – whether it be to keep from upsetting potential future co-workers or directors or to try to innocently (although somewhat naively) create a buzz of excitement around the city – you are doing more damage to the local theatre scene than you are good. Not only are you creating a disillusioned audience base, but you are also lowering the bar for everyone else to be measured against. And that, is nothing short of heart-breaking.
I know all these theatre reviewers think they are doing a good thing by handing out 5 star reviews like this. But trust me, they really aren’t. What they’re actually doing is lowering the standard for what it takes to get a 5 star review across the entire industry. People don’t have to work as hard anymore because they’re getting good reviews anyway and that is going to make the bloody brilliant companies in the city plateau and get lazy. Because they can afford to and still get rave reviews.
One thing on top of all of this that is really grinding my gears at the minute is the quality of these reviews. You can spot a sub-par review a mile off by just looking to see if it does anything other than just describing the plot to the reader. Is that all it takes? If I wanted to know the plot I’d read the synopsis on the programme or the productions Facebook page for Christ sake. I want to know more than what happened from a review. I want to know how the world was created, whether it was black box or down to a tee detailed. I want to see something on the technical details about the show, the reviewer’s in-depth thoughts about the performance from the actors as well as constructive criticism and anything that griped on them. Not just ‘This is what happened in the play. This also happened. 5 *’s.’
Maybe it’s just me, but I do not want to be associated with a 5 star review unless it has been undoubtedly earnt. I don’t want your sympathy reviews. Nor do I want a 5 star review thrown at me, just because you don’t want to upset me. I definitely don’t want a 5 star review from somebody just because I’ve worked with them, or because they don’t want to burn bridges… I guess what I’m saying is: GROW A FUCKING BACKBONE.
The Liverpool theatre and arts scene is thriving and that is absolutely fantastic. But I’ve not seen many people out there at the minute – if at all – who are ballsy enough to label something as poor if that’s what the production actually is. It all seems to be that, because of the Liverpool arts scene being as tight knit as it is, that everyone is afraid to say something in anticipation of themselves being frozen out, like we’re in some sort of scouse version of Mean Girls?
That’s not the Liverpool that I know of! Liverpool and its theatre scene are hailed as pushers of boundaries. The Liverpool I know honed the skills of the likes of Anthony Sher and Julie Walters in its theatres. We have two massive football teams that have both been at the very top of English football and we had the world’s first overhead electric railway. We have 5 bloody Universities in the region for god’s sake! So why are we all of a sudden having a love in with our theatres and the people who review them? Are we really that afraid of our own reflections in case they don’t smile back as brightly as we want them to?
If a performance is not perfect, then don’t give it 5 stars. Unless you come out of the theatre, wanting to go back in and immediately watch it again, whilst at the same time, calling everyone you know, as well as all news outlets, to notify them about how fucking speechless you are at this one in a million, perfect storm of directors, actors and technicians. Do not even contemplate giving it a 5 star review. By all means, if you feel it is worthy of it, give it a 4 star and STILL tell everyone about it for the next few days. But dare you give it a 5 out of 5 whilst acknowledging it requires improvement, then I will find you and brand five tiny little stars across your forehead until you look like Vyvyan Basterd from The Young Ones.
P.s. I’ve had a thought. As the old saying goes ‘If you can’t beat ‘em. Join ‘em.’ So, say hello to the newest reviewer of theatre and the arts in Liverpool. Expect nothing but honest reviews and straight talking opinions. If you want me to come along and review a show then feel free to contact me. If not, I’ll still probably come and review it anyway but without the courtesy of an invite. See you soon.