DramaLondonReview

The Upstart Crow – Gielgud Theatre, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Writer: Ben Elton

Director: Sean Foley

 

Who would have thought a few years ago that a Shakespeare driven sitcom would have been a BBC comedy fan favourite, spurring a spin off West End show? Taking a delightfully relaxed approach to the man, the work, and the mythos of the English language’s most influential writer Ben Elton’s The Upstart Crow seeks to bring the Bard to the masses – opening up a rich comedic seam that seeks to bring televisual success to the stage. What makes rich meat for a half hour TV show, however, is a little too filling for a two hour live show – too much of a good thing?

The 1605 Shakespeare here, played with glee and a real sense of enjoyment by David Mitchell, is a writer under pressure to turn out a hit piece of work under a strict deadline. He’s been creatively blocked since the death of his son Hamnet (in 1696) – producing works like Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well – both of which are soundly mocked by his servant Bottom (Rob Rouse) and deconstructed as sexist trash by his friend and sort-of landlady Kate (Gemma Whelan). He needs inspiration to get himself out of his rut. So inspired by the copy of King Leir [sic] left in the privy by Kate he sets about splitting his estate between his daughters to free his mind, encountering various shipwrecked princes, over-amorous puritans, unlikely murder plots and terrible transport services.

There’s enjoyable references to the real William’s work throughout – very much reflecting the character of the TV show. Relying on the idea that he (as any writer) steals stories and lines from everywhere he can to make his plays, there’s copious gags about his previous and subsequent works. In fact, for fans of the man himself, there’s almost a trainspotterish challenge to note them all. These are scattered alongside acting in-jokes galore – again mirroring the TV show – which a press night audience packed with theatre-types proved highly receptive to. Further, for fans of Upstart Crow already, the cod-Shakespearian language is given full space to grow and be enjoyed. However, there’s anly so many times one wants to hear “puretitty” instead of “puritan” or “futtocking” instead of the more famous four letter “fu..” word before it really drags. Fans of the show may also note the repetition of jokes – like the problem-filled replacement donkey service laid on when the stagecoach doesn’t run.

It’s an adaptation of the TV show, sure. But more – it picks up where the show leaves off at the end of the last season. An interesting experiment in cross-form storytelling maybe? But with gags reeling off at sitcom pace and little to differentiate it from the experience of just being part of a live studio audience for filming – there was perhaps more to do to adapt it to the stage.

Without a doubt, the cast are enjoyable to watch – top marks all round for those on the boards. It’s also funny as can be with a jolly mix of puerile, intellectual, sight and verbal jokes. The story itself is engaging and thoughtfully pokes fun at both Shakespearian times as well as modern day issues of race, sexuality and representation. Then, with so many great ingredients in the mix, it’s a real shame the end result is overdone.

Runs until 25 April 2020

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