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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Upstart Crow
Gielgud Theatre  Spring 2019; Autumn 2022

Since it first appeared in 2016 as a BBC TV series, Upstart Crow (minus the 'the') easily found its audience for writer Ben Elton's depiction of a put-upon William Shakespeare struggling to come up with the hits amid a volatile household of family, servants, theatrefolk, royalty and hangers-on. And yet in some ways the tongue-in-cheek sitcom never quite hit the spot because it often came across as flat and, well, staged.

However, this transfer to the real-life stage as a full-length play with new plot and script banishes any such misgivings and will deservedly enjoy full houses for this limited run aided of course by the pulling power of the principal original TV cast members, headed by David Mitchell as the beleaguered bard, Gemma Whelan as Kate, his landlord's daughter and frustrated would-be actress, and Rob Rouse as easily confused yet phlegmatic manservant Bottom.

The plot follows familiar grounds from the series as Will frets about not being able to deliver the next hit for his theatre actor/manager Burbage (Steve Speirs) and so risk losing favour with the lucrative royal court. Unlikely inspiration appears in the shape of shipwrecked twins Susanna (Helen Monks) and Arragon (Jason Callender), African royals who adopt equally unlikely disguises to hide from the religious bigotry of the times.

As with all farces, things get complicated and what follows is a mash-up of plots from King Lear, Twelfth Night, Othello and a surreal nod to Romeo and Juliet. Love is lost and won, mistaken identity abounds, racial and gender issues are addressed full on, and running gags about Shakespeare's bum plays abound. Will Will find his muse amidst the chaos? Will Kate get to play in one of his plays? Will Bottom ever work out what's happening?

The attraction of Elton's comedy and his cast is that you don't have to get any of the in-jokes to get the laughs, or to have seen the TV show. Elton also dares to layer the script with a running commentary on contemporary issues, from gender fluidity to diverse casting to HS2. From the audience's reaction, the gambit pays off well, although whether the BAME thread resonates is hard to say, given that audiences here in the West End are unlikely to display any diversity in that direction.

Although the casting makes for a mixture of abilities, which director Sean Foley fails to cohere, the performances are full-on and play deliciously to the crowd. Mitchell, Whelan and Rouse clearly know their characters inside out and yet still give it their all, as do Mark Heap (as the Puritan Dr John Hall) and Speirs, although both are slightly wasted with underwritten characters (Dr John Hall is initially unconvincing and needs director and writer to help Heap out), while Monks and Callender bring a winning mix of comic and classical to the constantly cross-dressing twins. And if there can be any better testament to the generosity of this ensemble, it's in letting Reice Weathers' dancing bear Mr Whiskers shamelessly steal the show with each appearance.

Foley avoids getting in the way of the TV leads and concentrates on finding the space for Elton's packed script, farce and slapstick to breathe on the same stage. He ensures that the gags don't trip up the plot and vice-versa, and as as result the pace whizzes by in this two hour-plus show.

All Tudor panels and hand-crafted backdrops, Alice Power's period set is unexpectedly contemporary in changing scenes, and her costumes memorably include Dr Hall's ever elaborate testicular padded breeches and expanding codpiece.

Upstart Crow may appear a no-pressure star vehicle at first glance, but the reality is that this is a bold show to bring to audiences today. For a host of zeitgeisty reasons, producers on the West End have lost their nerve for putting on comedies, leaving the The Play That Goes Wrong franchise to (deservedly) carry the humour category.

Though not as accessible to all audiences as it presents itself, Upstart Crow fires on every cylinder and showcases a rich range of our comedy talent. In fact, you'd be hard-pushed to find another play on the West End at the moment that delivers this level of showmanship.

Nick Awde

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Review - The Upstart Crow  - Gielgud Theatre 2020

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