Theatre Review: The Upstart Crow, Gielgud Theatre, W1

Theatre Review: The Upstart Crow, Gielgud Theatre, W1

I was anxious about this stage version of TV sitcom Upstart Crow about the comedic travails of William Shakespeare. When I interviewed writer Ben Elton earlier this year he talked about tackling issues of gender fluidity and diversity I thought that this incarnation might take itself too seriously to be a full-on comedy. Not a bit of it. The Upstart Crow might have a slightly different title to the BBC version but it is every bit as laugh-out loud funny. No, scrub that. It is even more funny. And not just because it is a chance to hear famous people saying comical words such as "puffling pants" and “futtock”. 

It helps that it has an excellent ensemble cast on top form and clearly enjoying themselves. David Mitchell returns as the constantly frustrated playwright with “shy hair”. Gemma Whelan is back as aspiring actor Kate. Rob Rouse is lots of fun as servant Bottom, Steve Speirs is a booming Burbage. Mark Heap is a new character (his old character being dead by now) Dr John Hall, who steals various scenes by smacking himself whenever he has an impure thought (ie frequently) and wearing a codpiece so big it gets in the way when he tries to exit. New cast members Jason Callender and Rachel Summers play separated twins Arragon and Desiree and add a bit of heft to the humour.

The plot mashes up various Shakespeare plays, from A Winter’s Tale and Twelfth Night to Othello, with art imitating life or vice versa. Or rather Shakespeare seeing something happen in real life or hearing about something and ripping it off to pen his next masterpiece. Helen Monks returns as his Brummie daughter Susanna alongside new daughter Judith (Danielle Phillips) and there is more than an echo of King Lear when the bard gives them his property, albeit in this case so that he can focus on his work. The idea is that he has lost his mojo and has to get his act together or lose the patronage of the new King James. 

Director Sean Foley squeezes the script for every possible laugh. Visual gags compete with Elton’s effective verbal wordplay. As well as the excessive cod pieces and Shakespeare’s ludicrously long quill there is a dancing bear (Reice Weathers) who upstages everyone whenever he appears. For a moment at the start I feared that Elton was going for a simple knockabout Play That Goes Wrong vibe, but this is actually way more classy than that. 

Serious issues are tackled. There’s a running theme asking whether a white middle aged man can/should write black characters and a genuinely serious scene from Othello is played out at one point. But the emphasis is very much on laughs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience at a West End play laugh so long and so hard during a performance. 

Ben Elton has never been the coolest of comedians but he has always known how to craft a joke and The Upstart Crow is crammed with them. It is not just funny, it is futtocking funny. 

The Upstart Crow is at The Gielgud Theatre until 25 April. Buy tickets here

Picture of Mark Heap as John Hall: Johan Persson

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