BWW Review: THE UPSTART CROW, Gielgud Theatre
Born out of the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death in 2016, Ben Elton's sitcom The Upstart Crow went on to have three series and multiple Christmas specials.
It follows William Shakespeare, who's by now rather well-known in London, as he attempts to write his notorious body of work, pinching ideas here and there and taking credit for quotes that aren't his, scribbling away whenever his nearest and dearest say something clever for future use.
Given its subject and the warm reception of the cheeky and jolly characters, it's surprising that it took so long for it to become a theatre show. Reprising their roles from telly to stage are David Mitchell as the title character (a moniker used by Robert Green to describe a young William who was just starting out as an actor and a playwright), Helen Monks as his daughter Susanna, Rob Rouse as Bottom the servant, Gemma Whelan as Kate, and Steve Speirs as Richard Burbage, joined by a talented and comically precise new cast.
Sean Foley directs the Elton-penned script in this rightfully over-the-top play that is, however, too dangerously similar to the original material. The latest chapter in the life of the most famous British dramatist in the world opens in 1605 and sees the Bard grappling with the lack of fresh ideas, not surprisingly. King James is unsatisfied by his recent productions, so he's in desperate need of another hit. Cross-dressing, good-natured swearing and Shakespeare-quoting ensues until all's well that ends well and everyone's happy.
The translation to the Gielgud works efficiently to an extent, with Foley dipping into the bucket of the TV show for the settings and organising the scene changes to look vaguely like its broadcast counterpart. The themes and jokes are close, too close to their BBC Two brother to bring anything unique to this version, and the gist of it is exactly the same too.
Elton plays it safe with his trademark tongue-in-cheek book that leans onto the correctness of its political incorrectness - just like it did from 2016 to 2018 - but the criticism somehow doesn't hit as heavily as it did then, and nor does the list of industry in-jokes.
Elton and Foley manage to deliver a faithful adaptation of style and approach, but the result is unchallenging and cautious. Mitchell brings back his impeccable performance as Shakespeare, as do all the others, but the imprint and mould being explicitly identical don't give enough of a reason to leave our sofa and fork out West End prices instead of turning on iPlayer or Netflix. This said, the immediate comedy and the very Elton-ian text will do the job for hardcore fans and supporters, and The Upstart Crow is a pleasant production after all.
Mitchell lives up to the hype and is certainly a strong main attraction. He keeps his Shakespeare drastically removed from the reverential elitism usually linked to the artist, and manages to maintain a balance between portraying him as a fallen idol and a bizarre writer. He is thrilling as he waltzes through penis jokes and an entirely self-referential supply of antics, but he ends up being outshone by his castmates - which is an impressive feat all things considered.
Whelan is especially striking and one feels she's doing the heavy lifting throughout the piece. Her Kate is still fighting for women's rights and tries her best to defeat the chauvinistic oppression of Jacobean society. She is supported in this by Rachel Summers as Desirée and Jason Callender as Arragon, the long-lost twins stranded on foreign land. Speirs fills the room as Burbage, and Rouse's Bottom is always a welcome presence on the scene.
Monks and Danielle Phillips share perhaps the most interesting chemistry as the playwright's daughters, coming in with perfect comedic timing and undying tenacity. Heap gives life to a new character instead of his previous Robert Greene, Dr John Hall, a fire-and-brimstone Puritan who does precisely what's expected of such a role.
Alice Power's designs are flexible in their classical slant: wooden panels cover the wings, painted backdrops descend, candles light up the room, and the sets are either wheeled smoothly in and out or pulled up and down.
Ultimately, the issue is that Elton doesn't dare to stray from what's made him money. The veiled rudeness and effective humour are there, as well as the beloved performances of the famous cast. Even the transportation gags that so charmed the public make an appearance. The piece is an amiable night out at the theatre with some familiar faces delivering their usual quips, but it's nothing that we haven't already seen.
Image credit: Johan Persson