Post-modern shows about Shakespeare are almost as common as the real thing these days. Cymbeline has been renamed and reclaimed as Imogen. Romeo And Juliet has had its title halved and been stuffed full of club bangers. And now, the Bard himself is laid bare in stand-up-turned-scriptwriter-turned-novelist Ben Elton’s new comedy, The Upstart Crow.
Well, it’s not quite new. It started life as BBC2 sitcom in 2016, written by Elton, its title lifted from Elizabethan author Robert Greene’s famous put-down of his literary rival. Three seasons and two Christmas specials later, it has made its way from screen to stage, occupying the Gielgud Theatre until April.
It’s arrived in theatreland with its TV cast largely intact – minus Liza Tarbuck. Comedian and panel show pundit David Mitchell as Shakespeare, makes his West End debut, alongside Gemma Whelan, Mark Heap, Rob Rouse, Helen Monks and more. Comedy specialist Sean Foley, artistic director of the Birmingham Rep, directs.
But does Mitchell make good in his first ever West End role? Does Foley find funny form? Does Elton’s Upstart Crow, with added definite article, convince the critics?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
The sitcom-to-stage path is well travelled. Dad’s Army, Yes Minister and Only Fools and Horses have all made the trip, with varying success. Does Elton, whose no stranger to writing for the stage, transfer his latest enterprise effectively?
Most critics think he does, and some think he does it superbly. It’s “joyously silly” according to Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph ★★★★), “entirely captivating” for Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage ★★★★), and “the most consistently funny and expertly staged comedy since Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors,” for Mark Lawson (Guardian ★★★★★).
The plot, explains Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut ★★★), is basically “a knowing mash-up of Twelfth Night, King Lear, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale”, full of mostly new material and set a decade after the TV show ended. Tonally, adds Luke Jones (Daily Mail ★★★★) it’s “Jacobean satire straight out of the Blackadder playbook” – “essentially live sitcom, but better written”.
“It is, it’s true, full of a lot of daft gags about bottoms and codpieces,” writes Crompton. “But it taps beautifully into two strong traditions of writing: the immaculately conceived vaudevillian sight-gag and the cod historical drama, while revealing great knowledge of the Bard himself.”
Not everyone is as enamoured. Nick Curtis (Evening Standard ★★★) calls it “panto with pentameters, only longer”, and Steve Bennett (Chortle ★★★) laments how it relies on “in-jokes” being “repeatedly hammered into the ground”. Some, he admits are “great”. Others are not, including a “lazy, ubiquitous” one that’s “always used to belittle trans people”.
Tim Bano (The Stage ★★★) concludes with the obvious: “Fans of the sitcom will be delighted at what amounts to getting to binge-watch an entire new series, while those who never had much interest in dick jokes couched in Elizabethan-sounding nonsense words are likely to get bored fast.” Most critics, it turns out, have a keen interest in such humour.
Mitchell has carved himself a fairly classic career in comedy – from the Cambridge Footlights, to subversive sketch comedy, to star-making sitcom, to panel-show regular. Autobiography and BAFTA are already in the bag, the OBE is surely not far behind. Here, he makes his West End debut.
And he’s good, according to the critics. Not five-star fantastic, but entirely at ease, as you might expect. Lawson calls him “engaging and confident”, Clive Davis (The Times ★★★★) thinks he “looks quite at home”, and Veronica Lee (The Arts Desk ★★★★) finds him “on great form”.
“He’s as good on stage as in the sitcom, nailing the mix of haplessness, pomposity and occasional tenderness that is Elton’s Will,” assesses Bano. For Crompton, meanwhile, “his good-natured presence, and perfect timing, ground the play in all its whimsical absurdity, and create a character at once vain, preposterous, and endearing”.
He does garner “the loudest cheers”, says Cavendish, and “looks fittingly ridiculous in doublet and hose, but not out of his comfort zone: those looks startled and peeved, that voice nasal and oft indignant, that mix of cerebral aloofness and hearty approachability are all carried across intact from the small screen”.
Director Foley is an assured hand when it comes to comedy. A two-time Olivier Award-winner as a writer-actor for Do You Come Here Often? in 1997 and The Play What I Wrote in 2002, and a six-time nominee, he’s been at the heart of West End comedy for two decades. His most recent outing, though – last year’s Ealing comedy adaptation The Man in the White Suit – was a flop, closing over a month early.
Most reviewers reckon he is back on form here. His direction is “exuberantly silly but surefooted” according to Davis, and “intricate but deliberately unsubtle” according Curtis. For Cavendish, meanwhile, he redeems himself “after the so-so The Man in the White Suit”, as he “keeps the pace tight and packs in the sight-gags”.
Foley “returns to top form”, agrees Lawson. “Punchlines and slapstick are meticulously timed, culminating in a spectacular sight-gag involving costumes including a bear suit, an unfeasibly large codpiece, and an escalatingly testicular pair of the baggy-thighed trousers.”
His real skill, reckons Bano, is in bringing out some “wonderfully full-on performances” from Mitchell and his supporting cast. Of these, it’s Whelan (familiar from HBO’s Game of Thrones) and Heap (recognisable from a raft of TV comedies) who take the lion’s share of the laudation.
Whelan is “a joy to watch” for Bano, and “a hoot” for Cavendish, her chemistry with Mitchell “perfection” according to Jones. Heap, meanwhile, is “an absolute treat” for Jones, and “scene-stealing” according to Cavendish.
“Heap, as ever, is in a league of his own as puritanical doctor John Hall, Malvolio’ed into wearing a gargantuan codpiece, sneering and buffooning his way through lines that he makes 10 times funnier in the way only he can,” extols Bano.
It is, actually. Of course, if you weren’t a fan of the sitcom, you won’t be a fan of the stage show, but most critics can’t find fault with it. Reviews range from three stars to five, but a raft of four-star ratings give the producers something to stick on the marquee alongside Mitchell.
The Peep Show-star reprises his TV role convincingly, as do his co-stars, particularly Whelan and Heap. Foley directs deftly, stuffing the show full of slapstick and sight-gags, and Elton’s gag-heavy script ultimately makes for a silly Shakespearean soiree.