Gielgud Theatre, London – until 25 April 2020
Filled with fantastic wordplay, Ben Elton’s comedy is a lovely tribute to William Shakespeare.
Believe it or not I hadn’t heard or seen anything of Ben Elton’s BBC comedy before hearing about this new stage version – but after seeing this brilliantly funny production I definitely left wanting more.
The Upstart Crow sees William Shakespeare in the middle of a bad case of writer’s block, not sure of where his next big hit is going to come from. With Bottom and Kate trying to help him, a mysterious stranger who may not be all they appear, a dancing bear and Richard Burbage breathing down his neck for a new play for the Queen – can Shakespeare deliver the hit that he needs?
From the very start, Elton’s sharp and witty script is filled with delightful pieces of wordplay – particularly when it comes to Shakespeare describing things like doors in a long winded way that are delightful to listen to or the references to celebrating diversity in the theatre. But there are times when it feels as though some of the script does repeat itself and does cause the joke to wear thin slightly.
However, what is particularly clever about the way in which Elton manages to bring elements of several of Shakespeare’s plots including King Lear and Othello into the script – leading to some genuinely funny moments all with the help of funny disguises and costumes that help bring in mistaken identities into play.
This is all brought to life through Sean Foley’s lively and well-thought out production, that really makes the most of Elton’s script ensuring the show is gleefully silly – particularly with regards to a tap dancing bear and Dr John Hall’s costume that lead to some of the biggest laughs of the evening. In turn, Alice Power’s set and costume design really highlight the sense of theatricality and Andy Graham’s sound design helps to enhance the comedy in all the right places.
The performances are all extremely well thought out too, with several of the cast members returning to their roles from the television series. David Mitchell, making his West End debut, makes for an ideal Shakespeare capturing the writer’s increasing frustration and exasperation beautifully with great timing that shows how comfortable he is with this role.
Elsewhere, Gemma Whelan is also strong support as Kate who just wants to become an actor but actually continually helps to inspire Shakespeare to create some of his best pieces of writing – a strong and charismatic performance. Meanwhile, Mark Heap is delightfully over the top as Dr John Hall and really makes the most of the physical comedy elements in the script. There is also great support from Rob Rouse as Bottom and Steve Spiers as Burbage.
All in all, what makes The Upstart Crow so delightful is the way in which Elton cleverly manages to combine Shakespeare’s language with a contemporary twist to great effect. A real joy to watch whether you have seen the tv series or not.
By Emma Clarendon
The Upstart Crow continues to play at the Gielgud Theatre until the 25th April. To book tickets click here or visit: Love Theatre.com, Encore Tickets, See Tickets, From the Box Office, Last Minute.com or Theatre Tickets Direct.co.uk.