Comedy Stars Are Funny Things

Based on her recent visit to The Lion and the Unicorn Theatre to see Mr Sister, by Hooked Theatre, Kate Copstick gives us a rare insight into the mind of a reviewer, the process of making a judgment about a show and dealing with the star rating system.

It is a tool of the marketing and PR industries. And there are quite enough tools there already.

As I sit in the dark at the press night of Mr Sister, the first sketch show from Hooked Theatre, that is heading to the Edinburgh Fringe in August, several things occur to me.

I have never been a fan of the 'star system' of reviewing.

It is reductive and lazy.

It is impossible to titrate in any objective way from reviewer to reviewer, which, of itself, negates the worth of any number of stars.

It is a tool of the marketing and PR industries. And there are quite enough tools there already.

Never more so than in Edinburgh and in August.

Yet fleets of often barely watertight creative vessels are already raising their myriad flags and directing hopeful bows towards the merciless metaphorical Kraken that is the Edinburgh Fringe, all seeking the treasured Five Star Review.

But ...

From whom?

From me ? A hoary, roaringly opinionated old Dragon, self-appointed to protect the Daenarys of true, creative fringe comedy and breathing critical fire on the Big Boys*, in the big venues for the big prices that are no more 'fringe' than The Fringe Society is 'charitable'.

From some other old warhorse who has seen it all and generally only laughs when there is an ‘r’ in the month?

From a starfucker who only reviews ‘them off the telly’, automatically inflating their ratings according to how famous you are, in the hope that when you bump into them in the Abattoir Bar you will like them?

From some newbie who isn’t really bothered about comedy but reckons you don’t need that much actual knowledge of the form to critique and scatter stars accordingly?

Or from the politically-powered and agenda-driven who haunt creative spaces in search of trauma and triggers, in the hope they might unearth a new 'Phoebe of the Day' and can ostentatiously withhold stars on the basis they don’t agree with you?

And for what, precisely, are those stars awarded?

How are the numbers crunched to accommodate a great performer in a weak show? Or a weak performer in a beautifully written piece?

Of course, for a show in the ‘comedy section’, surely stars are for being funny?

But funny according to whom?

Anyway, back to Mr Sister. Here's how it goes, star-wise:

1. Frankly, a large part of me is happy to hand out a five, just because we are at the pretty much unimprovable Lion and Unicorn and I am full of Truffle Mac n’ Cheese, washed down with an excellent Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, I am warm and cosy, and the trip from W12 to Kentish Town was so much easier than I had expected. The state of mind of the reviewer on the day is always a factor.

2. I am not, however, thinking more than a three, as I am told that those involved – Brooke Jones and Holly Kellingray – are, in fact, a female-led theatre company founded with the aim of telling “weird and wonderful stories with their specialist skills, whilst supporting other artists in the industry.” So my ‘drama school actors who think they can do sketch comedy' hackles have an early erection.

The prejudices of the reviewer are always a factor.

3. We start with a clever song, a flashback moment and some accomplished audience interaction, followed by the start of the quasi-narrative thread that takes us through the entire hour. And we are immediately up to a four, and relaxing into the confidence and control the two performers have together.

4. I am loving the core relationship between the two, the relaxed feel and the trust. They are not in competition, they are in co-operation in their comedy. That might well be because they are actors and not comics. They are staying at a four, even though the LPM** ratio is low. We are getting quality smiles. And interesting, intelligent writing.

5. We are still at a four as we get towards the halfway mark and some lovely material which is definitely gag heavier and 'proper sketch' – on wine-tasting, boys, boobies, willies and poopoo – but dip to a three as the hour reaches a plateau which is fine, but just not sufficiently sharp or lol enough to hold up as a four-star sketch show.

6. We perk up again with a beautifully observed 'chat show' sketch which is, unfortunately, allowed to drag on and then rolls into a series of 'not quite there' sketches and a level of predictability which undermines the impressive nature of the first half. I am teetering on the precipice of a two. Largely because what has been good has been very good and there really can be no excuse for letting the show get loose and even (whisper it low) feel a little lazy. The result of this is that I am not particularly sad when it ends. And I should be. I thought I would be. There is so much that is clever and funny and fresh here. Even more that has potential. There is a wonderful working comedy relationship. There is great intelligence and creativity. And yet there are some longueurs that belie both. There is freshness and yet at other times there is some predictability.

It just needs an intelligent edit. And a couple of tweaks.

So ...

I KNOW this will be a good four-star comedy show. But it is not that yet.

Tonight, it feels like a very smart three-star show, and you really should not award stars for perceived potential...

Three stars might deter people from seeing it at a later date when it will almost certainly be four stars, but that cannot be my problem.

By the time I get home, I am considering it, arguably, only merits two stars. Maybe I was simply enjoying the night as a whole and the show, qua show, was getting the benefit (see 1. supra). Looking back at my notes, it lacked the gag rate expected of a sketch show.

But Mr Sister is not a 'normal' sketch show.

Seen as a creative plus and foray into a new comedic form, this might be a reason to award more rather than fewer stars ...

Although it begs the question, why call it a sketch show, and set up expectations it will not meet?

Should we applaud those who expand the creative parameters of the sketch show beyond mere laughs? Maybe this hour needs a theatre critic and not a mere chuckle counter.

Mr Sister will be an entertaining way to spend anyone's fun time, and a definite recommendation for the Fringe.

I feel uncomfortable reducing it (as it most definitely is a work in progress, albeit not billed as such) to a star count.

Go and see it yourselves.

One thing I know – the Truffle Mac n’ Cheese is a five. Food reviewing is SO much simpler.


*Yes, I am aware that not all comics are boys, and that not even all boys are boys. I use the term Big Boys as a figurative, collective description that I think we all understand. Other gender identities are available.

**LPM: Laughs per minute

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