Upstart Crow is currently being filmed and I was lucky enough to have tickets to the first recording! This is my little spoiler free recording report: One of these were on everybody’s seat as you went in which was a lovely touch. Most of us (having not seen the pilot) didn’t know what to expect from Upstart Crow. The only thing everyone was fully aware of was It was written by Ben Elton and with that in mind you could only come to the conclusion that Upstart Crow would very much follow the ‘Blackadder’ formula. But, oddly enough, the whole thing immediately gave me a more ‘Bleak Expectations/Old Shop of Stuff’ type vibe and now I know why: when I got home I started looking into the production credits and discovered the show is being produced by Gareth Edwards! A name that may well ring a bell with longstanding Mitchell and Webb fans. He was the producer for ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’, as well as ‘Bleak Expectations’ (the modern classic Radio 4 dickensian sitcom) and ‘Old Shop of Stuff ‘(It’s short lived TV spin off but with a truly memorable Christmas special). I should have realised The whole thing felt like a Gareth Edward’s production. Probably his most high profile credit is ‘Still Open All Hours’, but I really think you can tell one of his productions. Everything he works on has this lovely, warm, charming and almost a grown up kid’s show type feeling to it that just makes this a joy to watch.
So, It’s more ‘Bleak Expectations’ than ‘Blackadder’, but the ‘Blackadder’ element is still very much there; though David’s Shakespeare is more naive, ernest (except when he’s bragging about his plays) and true, playing very much on David Mitchell’s natural qualities, to be comparable to the devious wit of Edmund Blackadder. He makes for a very endearing lead. The script played to David’s strengths, really showing Ben Elton’s understanding of knowing what to write for him. We had a great rant from him as Shakespeare came home from a day travelling on a coach. I was sitting next to two very nice and enthusiastic David Mitchell fans (even to rival me!) ‘Yes, Mitchell at the top of his game.’ He said to his friend. I couldn’t agree more. He also played brilliantly off the villain of the piece: Master of the Revels, Shakespeare’s ever hateful critic and the man responsible for giving him the title ‘Upstart Crow’, Robert Greene, played by Mark Heap.
Mark Heap was simply superb in his role, playing a baddie even to rival Anthony Head’s Mr Gently Benevolent (again,, from Bleak Expectations). With his sinister laughs, dramatic entrances and exits with swishings of his cloak and using his quill as a makeshift dagger, pretending to stab Shakespeare in very much the ‘Psycho’ style as he sat in his office fantasizing of Shakespeare’s downfall, Green really is the full on panto villain I dared hope he might be.
So, the story follows the arch of Greene plotting to ruin Shakespeare, but as well as that we meet his family; His wife, played by the brilliant Liza Tarbuck, his two twins and eldest daughter (played by Helen Monks). And also his mother and father, who live with the family, played by Paula Wilcox and Harry Enfield. Enfield made a particularly great impression as the critical father, nagging his son into perhaps forming a double act with him. Although he was sort of using his Mr I-Don’t-Think-You-Wanted-To-Do-That voice, making me wish he would shout ‘Only Me!’ he worked very well.
In Shakespeare’s work life we had Bottom, his servant played by Rob Rouse (and often the voice of reason), Kate, played by Gemma Whelan, who seems very fond of Shakespeare, and Upstart Crow’s very own answer to Lord Flashheart: Christopher Marlowe played by Tim Downie. What was so wonderful about how he played it, was it was almost as if I felt I was watching Rik Mayall. Yet this was no cheap copy, not a lame attempt to just do an impression of Flashheart, no…It was almost as if Downie was channeling Rik’s spirit, and it was magic to watch. Although he was so heavily inspired by Flashheart (all talk of swords and women,) this, much like David’s Shakespeare, was a much truer character, daring and brave but loyal to his best friend Shakespeare to the last.
The pair work for Burbage (Steven Speirs) an actor and theatre manager who ultimately decides the fate of Shakespeare and Marlowe’s careers. Condell and Kempe also work in the theatre, chipping in the odd funny line here and there.
In short, Upstart Crow is a triumph. As all the cast came out for a bow and the audience cheered and applauded Ben Elton proclaimed excitedly ‘We hope this show can run and run.’ and so do I. ‘Blackadder’ with the heart of ‘Bleak Expectations’, ‘Upstart Crow’ is better than I could have dared hope it could be.