Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow – a rollicking Shakespearian romp.
There has been a lot of interest around David Mitchell making his West End debut in Upstart Crow at the Gielgud Theatre in Ben Elton’s adaptation of his hit BBC sitcom. I know this because on the train home the chap sitting next to me was almost overcome with excitement on seeing my theatre programme. But if like me you don’t watch much TV you can rest assured that unfamiliarity with the show is no barrier to enjoying one of the best-crafted rollicking romps that the London stage has seen for a long time.
Upstart Crow stars Mitchell in the role of William Shakespeare in a humorous take on the Bard of Avon’s life. Mitchell brings his innate comic timing to the part with England’s favourite playwright being portrayed as a neurotic, self-obsessed character who’s not above stealing his best ideas from those around him. Much to the annoyance of his family and friends he constantly speaks in riddles because ‘that’s what I do’.
The play has been newly created for the theatre and stars many of the same faces as the television series. In a sure sign of the affection the audience holds for the show each character gets a rapturous reception as they make their first entrance. Second only to Mitchell, top of the audience pops is Gemma Whelan who is quirky and excitable as stage-struck Kate, daughter of Shakespeare’s London landlord.
Helen Monks as Will’s daughter Susanna alongside newcomer Danielle Phillips as younger sister Judith are stroppy teenagers who delight in pointing out their father’s failings in an impressively thick Wolverhampton accent. Comedian Rob Rouse also returns and does sterling service as the bard’s servant Bottom who functions as a cleverer version of Baldrick in Elton’s Blackadder.
But most impressive is Mark Heap, Robert Greene in the TV series, who creates a new character, the Puritan Dr John Hall. Having been tricked to believe that Kate will love him if he dresses outrageously, he returns in comedy outsized pantaloons and with a huge erect codpiece that has to be seen to be believed!
The play opens in 1605 with Shakespeare’s career in the doldrums after the relative failures of Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. He’s under pressure to write a new hit to keep the King amused as well as his lead actor Burbage employed, played, or maybe I should say shouted, with a grandiloquent staginess by Steve Speirs.
Elements from King Lear and The Winter’s Tale are cleverly worked into the plot which features a shipwreck and stranded African siblings. Jason Callender as noble Prince Arragon and Rachel Summers as scheming Princess Desiree, which provides lots of opportunity for gender-swapping hilarity as well as topical references to racial and gender inclusivity. There is some reusing of material from the TV show but only in establishing some of the basic plot and character elements and you never feel you are shortchanged.
Direction by Sean Foley is impeccable and the energy level never abates with Elton’s quick-fire gags and relentless wordplay being familiar to those of us who remember his stand-up shows from the 1980s. The comedy is broad and the use of language is both clever but also pleasingly adolescent – things are a ‘load of bollingbrokes’ and the F-word becomes futtock. Mitchell is clearly having the time of his life in this production and the audience is very comfortable at sharing his delight. If Upstart Crow sounds like your kind of show it’s only running for an 11-week season so you better book soon!
London, W1D 6AR
Final show: 25 April 2020
Evening Performances: Monday to Saturday at 7.30 pm Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30 pm
Looking for pre-theatre or post-theatre dining in Soho and the West End? Check our recommendations
At the Southbank, London, ‘The Visit’ – an epic story
At the Bush Theatre, West London is The High Table – check our review.