Are star ratings really that important to audiences?

10th July 2023

The Green Room discussion piece in The Stage asked six theatre panellists - ‘Is it time to retire the star rating system for reviews?'’ 

It led to an interesting dialogue around how theatre, as we all know, is incredibly subjective. There’s now a multitude of factors that can persuade or dissuade a theatre goer to go see a show, including the star ratings, trusted reviewers, audience reviews on social media, celebrity endorsements, recommendations from friends and more. So, how important are star ratings to audiences?

For me, I have always liked to read a review whether it’s from a theatre critic or another theatre goer. It won’t affect whether I see a show, I’m just interested to learn different viewpoints from industry experts and curious as to why they have given the ratings they have. I go to see a show because I enjoy the subject or story, or it has been recommended to me.

If you didn’t know, star ratings were first used in 1996 by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The festival had grown so big, The Scotsman newspaper introduced the star system to help audiences choose from the 15,000+ shows! WhatsOnStage introduced a five-star rating in 1997 and newspapers closely followed suit.

Daily and weekend newspapers and theatre publications still have a big hold on audience members and their decision making. An interesting point came up from one of the panellists in The Green Room: “When Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory opened its first show (King Lear), it nearly closed early. Then the Observer review came out and the phone rang off the hook.

Reviews are extremely personal and as Lyn Gardener said in an article from 2017, “Star ratings can be misleading” 

She says: “Three stars at the National Theatre probably suggests high production values and possibly fine acting, but a certain level of disappointment around the work. But three stars for a show by a young company in a small venue may well represent a fragile but interesting piece of theatre that is well worth everyone’s time and money.

The number of reviewers and bloggers out there are growing rapidly. Some are eloquent and get deep inside the performance, but others just provide an overview and give away spoilers. Does this mean that their star ratings are all comparable?

As Jenny, an experience actor in the West End and touring plays, says in The Green Room: “There is such a plethora of ‘reviewers’ out there now. Lots of star ratings put on posters come from websites and blogs that I’ve never even heard of.

Stars are of course seen as a mark of quality to that can make or break a show. Naturally, all theatre-makers wants a five-star review and sometimes it doesn’t matter where it came from. The higher the number of stars the more publicity the show will get, which leads to greater visibility, interest and ticket sales.

Sharing anything less than a four or five star review on publicity material would be too much of a risk. That is because three stars or below are considered a poor performance and highly destructive to a theatre company.

Time Out retired its one and two-star ratings only in April this year and, as Jon, an actor in regional theatres and the National, mentioned in the discussion piece, “is going to put anything under three stars as ‘unrated’, which feels worse than getting two stars in some ways?

I agree. Maybe don’t print the ‘unrated’ plays. Any mention could be hugely damaging to all those involved. Theatre is so subjective. Something I might love someone else may loathe and vice versa. We aren’t all the same. We all have different views. We go to see the same show but come out with a different reaction. We see performances differently and will experience them differently.

Another interesting point from Jon who said: “Great reviews don’t always do the trick – shows have transferred into town on the back of five-star reviews and closed early”.

As Jenny said: “There are a lot of shows out there now who court audiences who do not even care or know about reviews – it’s all about social media, TikTok trends and word of mouth. One producer I know doesn’t even invite newspaper critics to his shows.

Inviting a critic can be a very positive or negative experience, but you won’t know which way it will go until it is too late. Social media certainly now plays a huge part in consumer views and customer experience. It is so quick and easy to share your experience and opinions on your feed and start conversations with like-minded people in specific groups. Many people start discussions about plays they’ve just seen, asking questions about why this happened, the meaning of something else or even the best places to sit in the theatre.

Perhaps accepting the consumer review and using these on publicity is the way forward? These are the people you are targeting, so would using their voice would be more advantageous than a critics?

Theatre ticket prices have shot up, so it is understandable that theatre goers look at reviews to help make decisions. Trusted recommendations, I think, are one of the best ways to go.

In a quick poll the team ran on the Play’s The Thing and our personal Instagram Stories, we wanted to find out “What is the main reason you book theatre tickets” and gave the following four answers – the reviews are good, you like the story/songs, recommendation from a friend and you like the cast.

  • 22% of you looked at reviews.
  • 50% went because you liked the story, subject or music.
  • 21% went on a recommendation from someone they know.
  • 7% went because they like the cast.

Even though this was based on a small number, it looks as though reviews aren’t the important deciding factor.

Stars are so embedded in British theatre that I think it will be difficult to get rid of them completely. With the rise of internet and social media everyone is now a critic, but it is useful to have a range of views rather than just one in the paper.

I believe the best thing to do is just go and see the performance. If you want to see a production, then go and see it. Follow your gut because there is nothing worse than missing out on great theatre.

How important are star ratings to you when booking theatre tickets?