Opinion: Why Star Ratings Don't Tell The Whole Story

I went to see Bill Bailey at the Vaudeville Theatre last night. I reviewed the show for the Evening Standard and gave it four stars. During a brief email exchange with a sub-editor I mentioned that it was nearly a five star show and she replied that my review made it sound like almost a five star review too.  So why didn't it get the full quintet?

I thought the show was fantastic. I’ve probably seen all of Bill’s shows and to say it is a return to form makes it sound as if he has been going through a slump. Far from it. He is always great fun but there was something about last night’s show that really did put it a notch above his recent tours. 

Maybe, as I alluded to in my review, it was the fact that it was in an intimate theatre rather than an “enormodome” – a word I think Bailey himself coined*. I remember seeing him at Wembley a few years ago and I was pretty dispirited by the journey there and that was before I even entered the cavernous venue. 

Bailey then was onto a winner at the start. In some ways this stripped-down gig – no video backdrop this time, just some very astute lighting changes – reminded me of when I had seen him at the Edinburgh Festival two decades ago. Just one man and a guitar. Well OK, one man, a few guitars some keyboards and bongos and a theremin, but it still felt like an intimate affair.

So I gave it a gushing review but not five stars. I’m very mean with my five stars – Kitson, Connolly and Victoria Wood had definitely received them over the years, but I can’t think of many others.

I guess the trouble is to get five stars a show has to be perfect. While Bailey was never less than hugely enjoyable there were moments that felt slightly formulaic. His dance remix of the iPhone ringtone was a little too close to his BBC News reboot. Sometimes you could see the cogs working, though the result was brilliant even when you could sense it coming. Sorry if I sound like a curmdgeon here. The show really was very good.

Star ratings are a useful shorthand but a blunt instrument. I'd say Bill Bailey's show was 4.4 out of 5 so was rounded down to 4, whereas another show I've seen this week was a 3.6 and was rounded up to 4. So looking at the stars they are the same. Hopefully the nuance in the review will make it clear that one is better than the other.

Comedy is a difficult thing to give a score to. At one point Bailey was doing death metal versions of pop songs and asked for suggestions. Someone shouted out “Adele” and Bailey seemed momentarily stumped, opting for Abba instead. Should he have been marked down for that? And a technical malfunction last night meant he couldn’t do his Moby Masterclass. Maybe it’s the roadie that should lose points there, not Bailey. He recovered so well it hardly spoilt anyone's night, although reading reviews of provincial shows this morning it has apparently been the highlight of the tour. Sadly London critics didn’t get to see it, though punters who go over the next month no doubt will.

I suppose I mark comedians the way judges mark Olympic gymnasts. Comedians and gymnasts both perform feats that no ordinary person could dream of performing and yet they still don’t get full marks very often. It’s only once in a blue moon that you get someone who scores a perfect 10 or a five star review. But if last night’s gig had been an Olympic event Bill Bailey would definitely have deserved a gold medal.

Bill Bailey is at the Vaudeville Theatre until January 17. Go and see him. Tickets here.

*Following publication it has been pointed out to me by comedy nerd Matthew Crosby that the word "enormodome" comes from Spinal Tap. Though Bill Bailey may have been the first person to associate it with arena comedy gigs. See this from 2009.

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