sat 04/04/2020

Upstart Crow, Gielgud Theatre review - terrific Shakespeare spoof | reviews, news & interviews

Upstart Crow, Gielgud Theatre review - terrific Shakespeare spoof

Upstart Crow, Gielgud Theatre review - terrific Shakespeare spoof

Ben Elton's new comedy is a gagfest

David Mitchell and Gemma Whelan are superb in Ben Elton's new playPhotographs by Johan Persson

What joy it is to welcome this offshoot of the television series to the West End stage – complete with several of that show's cast, plus a few new additions.

What joy it is to welcome this offshoot of the television series to the West End stage – complete with several of that show's cast, plus a few new additions. Ben Elton has fashioned an original story that picks up in 1605, a decade after where the third series left off (with the death of William Shakespeare's son, Hamnet), and two years into the reign of King James.

Will (David Mitchell, on great form as the prolix and self-obsessed playwright) has had a run of duds and now is under pressure to write a hit to save his company of actors from disbandment. His landlady's niece, Kate (the marvellous Gemma Whelan) urges him to write from the heart, rather than steal her ideas, or those he gleans from the reading material she leaves in the privy. In a heady mangling of plot-lines and some jiggery-pokery with the chronology of the Bard's work, we see Elton's version of how King Lear, Othello and Twelfth Night came about.

The mash-up involves a ship-wrecked Egyptian princess Desiree (Rachel Summers, pictured below) who ends up at Will's London lodgings, as does later her twin Arragon (Jason Callender). Cue gender-fluid and transgressive entanglements, risible coincidences, daft eavesdropping scenes and even a dancing bear. Then add shades of a man driven mad by his offspring (by their refusal to cook him breakfast) when Will decides to leave his estate to his daughters Susanna and Judith (Helen Monks and Danielle Phillips). It could be plot overload, but director Sean Foley mostly keeps things trotting along.

Upstart CrowThe cast are superb; Steve Spiers hams it up nicely as dreadful actor Burbage, Rob Rouse is given the chance to shine with much more to do here as Will's servant Bottom, while Mark Heap steals every scene he's in as the Malvolio-like gulled Puritan (or “pure-titty”) Dr John Hall.

The script is non-stop gags, Shakespeare in-jokes and some gloriously anachronistic lines, and Elton has fun mocking modern-day preoccupations with diversity and animal rights. But in among the knob gags – of course there are knob gags, it's Ben Elton – in the twins' plot-line he makes some telling points about how white historians have written black people out of history, and in Kate's (she really, really, really wants to act on stage) how women being elbowed out of the way by men is nothing new.

You don't have to be a fan of the TV series to love this show – although, as my companion pointed out, it helps to have some knowledge of Shakespeare's plays to get some of the jokes. But there are so many that if you miss one, another belly laugh comes along immediately after.

The script is non-stop gags, Shakespeare in-jokes and some gloriously anachronistic lines

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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