It’s hard to believe that it has been over two years since The Upstart Crow debuted to 5-star reviews at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End. It was bizarre, tragic, yet strangely apposite that a Shakespearean play that predominantly featured the plot of King Lear would be halted by a pandemic – a popular hypothesis states that William Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the 1606 outbreak of plague in London, which itself closed all the theatres.
Cut off in its prime, Upstart Crow’s big West End theatre run couldn’t possibly have closed forever mere weeks after it was declared a triumph. Thankfully now, after a lengthy hiatus the show is back. What’s changed?
As with every Shakespeare play, Upstart Crow, (although always magic on screen) has a particularly captivating quality when performed live – there’s a magic about the show, a special thing that happens when an entire cast and crew come together to create something that just works, and leaves its audience with a warm glow (something all truly great sitcoms possess). This was evident at the TV recordings, where, at the now sadly departed ITV Studios (often known simply as The London Studios) the atmosphere was electric, despite the temperatures outside being typically freezing – the series was always recorded in early January, queuing outside amidst bitter winds blowing in from The Thames was cold to say the least. The studios themselves were air conditioned to help prevent any bald caps melting, but still the atmosphere was alive with beautifully crafted comedy.
There was no doubt that Upstart Crow’s subject matter lent itself to the theatre, and with Ben Elton’s background in the West End and sitcom, it seemed almost inevitable that this was where the series would find its natural home.
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. The idea that Hamlet had been written for Shakespeare’s lost son is explored well here, without the mood getting too melancholy over young 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 only appears occasionally, but when he does, he’s truly great and a real hit with the audience.
At the start of the play, we meet Desiree, played by Gloria Onitiri, 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 role in the initial run, now played by John Gordon Sinclair, the resemblance is pretty uncanny. Sinclair steps into Heap’s role with ease, it’s no discredit to either actor that you can hardly tell them apart.
Having jumped ahead in the timeline of William Shakespeare’s life (something Ben Elton has always paid close attention to) we are to assume that Robert Greene has finally bowed out and Dr John Hall, someone not so dissimilar in his disdain for Shakespeare has taken his place.
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 an ever-growing pair of outrageous puffling pants. This goes down extremely well with the audience, a huge credit should be given to the costume department, who really have done a beautiful job with each character’s costume, the aforementioned Mr Whiskers, probably has the best bear costume you’ll ever see.
The incredible Gemma Whelan is back as the wonderful Kate, as is the winsome Rob Rouse as Shakespeare’s man servant ‘Bottom’, Stewart Wright takes over from Steve Speirs as Burbage and gives us a new spin on the character.
The play isn’t just an episode of Upstart Crow adapted for the stage, The Upstart Crow marks itself out as something different – never focusing on just one play, Ben Elton has stuffed the script with nods to Othello, Twelfth Night and King Lear, and for King Lear and Othello things get serious.
Towards the end of the first act 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 see Danielle Phillips as a grown-up Judith). Will incenses the pair by announcing that he will treat Kate as one of his daughters and will be dividing his estate up between the three of them, the culmination of this results in an almost abridged King Lear. David Mitchell really shines here, not just as a comic performer, but as a serious Shakespearean actor. We’d all love to see his King Lear in an RSC performance, but we do get to see a glimpse here, and it’s glorious! The storm scene stands out from all others, as Bottom plays ‘the fool’ to Shakespeare’s Lear. It’s serious, moving and funny all at once – a real spectacle to watch.
The drama gels really well with the comedy. As the play reaches its climax, we see a scene from Othello played out between Kate (Gemma Whelan) and Jason Callender as Arragon, the brother of Desiree, who by astonishing coincidence has also washed up on the coast very near to Shakespeare’s London lodgings (it’s a long story). This serious scene was a great idea; we even get a 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 about cod dangles 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! And at this revival, it continues to evoke the same reaction – typically Ben Elton writes up to the minute satire which has been added in to much aplomb.
Upstart Crow’s fundamental genius lies in making Shakespeare accessible and entertaining. To have the nerve to announce some plays are ‘crappage’ whilst revelling in the glory of others. Ben’s scripts have such a wealth of detail about the Bard’s life and plays, that with David Mitchell at the helm, he now becomes a more accessible figure.
The play gives us so many interesting insights into the Bard’s life, for example, 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 Jonathan 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 having their moment (including Mr Whiskers).
If you love Upstart Crow, Shakespeare, or just a really good comedy, then you must come and see The Upstart Crow, now playing at Shaftesbury Avenue’s Apollo Theatre, it’s a love letter to Shakespeare, and one that we can all enjoy!