A month after the stage spinoff of Ben Elton’s sitcom about William Shakespeare opened in the West End in 2020, theatres were closed just as they were by bubonic plague in the Bard’s own time. More than two years on and Upstart Crow is back, though this time in a different playhouse.
Bar a couple of lines about levelling up, the show is the same mix of clever and oafish, worshipful and mocking – a vehicle for panto acting and a machine-gun barrage of gags. Some of the humour is rooted in a deep appreciation of Shakespeare’s work, others in the belief that calling a penis a “cod-dangle” is innately hilarious. Sean Foley’s arch, knowing production proceeds at a hectic pace that’s exhausting to watch.
Since the TV show came to a beautiful, bittersweet end with the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, the narrative here has a tacked-on air. Our vain, irascible hero, played by David Mitchell, is convinced of his own genius but filches all his ideas and lines from those around him. The loss of a child has pitched him into a creative dry patch. His London landlady’s daughter, would-be actress Kate (Gemma Whelan, also reprising her screen role and holding the whole thing together) suggests he look to his daughters in Stratford for inspiration.
These two have broad comedy-Brummie accents and flit from craving their father’s love to resenting him, a la King Lear. John Gordon Sinclair’s performance as the self-flagellating puritan Dr John Hall is pure slapstick and primarily revolves around pantaloons and a codpiece of steadily-increasing size.
As the hammy actor-manager Burbage, Stewart Wright has to bellow all his lines to outstrip the deliberate overacting going on all around him. (The loss of Hamnett, meanwhile is used to explain the regrettable absence of Liza Tarbuck as Anne Hathaway: we also miss Harry Enfield as Shakespeare’s father; both brought some nuance to the TV series.)
Kate’s infatuation with the disguised female half of a pair of shipwrecked, regal African twins inspires copious reference to Twelfth Night and Othello as well as Lear. A scene-stealing dancing bear means those in the know can feel smug about the coming Winter’s Tale joke. As on screen, England in the 1600s is juxtaposed with life today so there’s material about gender fluidity, sexism, ethnicity, and Britain’s rubbish public transport.
Mitchell is of course adroit at blending high and low comedy and is clearly the draw here: at the performance I saw, he got a warm hand on his entrance. If you buy into the lameness of the set-ups, the deliberate tackiness of the Alice Power’s set and costumes, the mugging and the asides, its entertaining and sometimes erudite fun. I did, though, find myself wishing for some variation in tone and some respite from the relentless pummel of Elton’s wit. Not via another plague, though.
Apollo Theatre, to Dec 3; upstartcrowthecomedy.com