Spoiler warning: There are teaser spoilers and a few plot details ahead.
The first time I saw Upstart Crow was at The ITV Studios. I had been lucky enough to get tickets to the recording of the first episode, It was a bitterly cold January day back in 2016, and I could never have imagined that in the years to come the show would end up next to Les Misérables in the prestigious Gielgud Theatre on the West End. But now I think about it, I think, why didn’t I think of that? Right from that first recording at the glorious ITV Studios (which sadly no longer operates. RIP), you could feel that there was a magic about the show, a special thing that happens where an entire cast and crew come together to create that rare concoction where a show just works and has that warm glow that all truly great sitcoms possess.
Obviously, Upstart Crow’s subject matter does lend itself to the theatre, and with Ben Elton’s background in The West End and Sitcom, it seems daft not to have come to the conclusion that the whole series has found its logical home in the theatre. And so, to The Upstart Crow…
Things have moved on from where we left the TV series, we’ve jumped from the late 1500s to 1605. Will’s got to come up with a brilliant new play after Measure for Measure was deemed incomprehensible bolingbrokes and All’s Well That Ends Well didn’t even end well! He’s lacking inspiration. Kate remarks that his last well received play was Hamlet, and the idea that Hamlet was written about/for Shakespeare’s lost son is explored well here, without the mood getting too melancholy over Hamnet’s death. Shakespeare rebuffs these ideas and against Kate’s advice refuses to look within himself to write another classic. Meanwhile, he also wants to come up with a truly iconic stage direction – enter the bear, Mr Whiskers, played by Reice Weathers, a very sweet addition to the cast. He’s truly great. I’d say that they’ve missed a trick not selling plushies of him in the foyer!
At the start of the play we meet Desiree, played by Rachel Summers, an African Princess washed up on the shores of England after a shipwreck – she seeks her brother and hopes to be reunited, in a nod to Twelfth Night. This theme continues with Dr John Hall, Mark Heap’s new role. Now we’ve jumped ahead in time we are to assume that Greene has finally bowed out, but someone not so dissimilar has taken Greene’s place to become a bane of Will’s life. We first meet John as an eccentric plague doctor and as we see him throughout the play he attempts to win the affections of Kate by donning ever growing pairs of outrageous puffling pants.
Gemma Whelan is back as the wonderful Kate, as is Rob Rouse as Shakespeare’s servant ‘Bottom’ as is Steve Speirs as Burbage. The scenes where we have the core performers feel as if you are watching an Upstart Crow episode, for me, it felt as if I was back at the old ITV Studios. The transition to the stage has been seamless really. However, this isn’t just an episode of Upstart Crow adapted for the stage, this is so much more! The Upstart Crow doesn’t focus on one play, but a few, mainly Othello, Twelfth Night and King Lear. And for King Leah and Othello things get serious.
Towards the end of the first half, Will announces that he will be dividing up his wealth and property between his two daughters, Susanna and Judith (Helen Monks reprises her role from the TV series as Susanna, and we now also have Danielle Phillips as a grown-up Judith). Will incenses the pair by announcing that he will treat Kate as one of his daughters and divide his estate up between the three. The culmination of this results in an almost abridged King Lear and David Mitchell really shines here, not just as a comic performer, but as a serious Shakespearean actor. I’d say that I’d love to see his King Lear in an RSC performance, but we basically see it here, and it’s glorious! The storm scene stuck out for me as Bottom plays ‘the fool’ to Shakespeare’s Leah. It’s serious, it’s moving and funny all at once. It’s a real spectacle to watch.
The drama gels really well with the comedy. At the end we see a scene from Othello played out straight between Kate (Gemma Whelan) and Jason Callender as Arragon, the brother of Desiree, who by astonishing coincidence also washed up on the coast very near to Shakespeare’s London lodgings (It’s a long story). This serious Shakespeare scene was a great idea; we even get a nice nod to ‘The Globe’ as its famous red pillars come down to immerse us completely in a beautifully acted moment. It was only right that this incarnation of Upstart Crow would have more of ‘The Theatre’ about it, but there are plenty of gags too, lots of social commentary, and of course transport rants. At the opening night the ‘See it, say it, sort it’ gag almost brought the house down!
Upstart Crow’s genius lies in making Shakespeare accessible and entertaining. To have the nerve to announce some plays are ‘crappage’ and to revel in the glory of others. When the Upstart Crow TV series started, I wasn’t much of a Shakespeare aficionado, but Ben Elton’s scripts have such a wealth of detail about the bard’s life and plays, that with David Mitchell at the helm, he now feels like a more accessible figure. The show has inspired me to read and experience more of his plays, and I’m sure that lots of people have felt the same way. I think this play will only enhance those feelings for most people and inspire them to see other Shakespeare productions.
The play gives us so many interesting insights, for example I had no idea that Shakespeare’s King Lear originated in ‘The History of King Leir’, the story of King Leir and his three daughters was apparently well known in England centuries before Shakespeare wrote his iconic play. Yet another idea that he may have pinched from the books Kate keeps leaving in the privy.
The dance finale will surprise many David Mitchell fans, as the man who doesn’t dance (as famously lampooned by Jonathon Ross in a Big Fat Quiz of The Year episode) dances! It’s a full-on dance routine too, traditional at first (in the style of many of Shakespeare’s comedies that finish on a dance) and then it transitions into an almost ‘street dance’ style performance with all the players (including Mr Whiskers,) joining in. I loved it, and the audience did too.
If you love Upstart Crow, Shakespeare, or just really good comedy, drama and theatre then you must come and see The Upstart Crow, it’s a love letter to Shakespeare, and one that we can all enjoy!