Even if Ben Elton’s successful sitcom about William Shakespeare had been given a fourth series, it seems only natural that they would have a go at a stage version. A play about our most famous playwright? It’s no-brainer.
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 (cod-dangle, futtock) are likely to get bored fast.
Where every episode of Upstart Crow modelled itself after a particular play and the real-life (-ish) events in Shakespeare’s life that prompted them, the play mashes around seven plots together, beginning with Twelfth Night. ‘African’ twins Desiree and Arragon (hilarious Rachel Summers and Jason Callender), are shipwrecked, separated, decide to cross-dress and fall in love with the first people they see. The middle section nicks from King Lear, where Shakespeare’s daughters Susanna and Judith – the brilliantly silly Helen Monks and Danielle Phillips – become Goneril and Regan. By the end the focus is on Othello, as Shakespeare decides, radically, to cast actual black actors in black roles.
In between there’s a bit of Romeo and Juliet self-poisoning, a nod to Antony and Cleopatra and other titbits for Bard-bashers, played out in front of painted cloths. Elton interlocks the plots in really clever ways, and there are loads of good gags, but the show as a whole feels like little more than the sum of its pilfered parts.
Most of the original TV show cast is here on stage, which is a relief since they comprise some of the best comic actors around, with theatre’s go-to comedy director Sean Foley bringing out some marvellously full-on performances. Gemma Whelan, as Shakespeare’s landlord’s daughter Kate, is a joy to watch, and Rob Rouse offers solid support as Bottom. Mark 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.
The main attraction is David Mitchell in his West End debut. He’s as good on stage as in the sitcom, nailing the mix of haplessness, pomposity and occasional tenderness that is Elton’s Will.
The trouble is, Elton can’t quite reconcile his erstwhile left wing firebrandism with his confusion about, and need to poke fun at, contemporary liberal hypocrisy. He sort of wants to be politically correct, but can’t resist an easy gag – at diversity, at gender – when he sees one.
Ultimately this all works better in sitcom format: small doses, over several weeks. By the end of the play it feels like we’ve heard every gag four times too many. The near-perfect cast, and Foley’s steady hand ensure the play is, just about, the thing.