Upstart Crow at Gielgud Theatre
Ben Elton’s hilarious adaptation of the award-winning sitcom Upstart Crow is met with continual laughter and applause from long-standing fans and newcomers alike. In its first translation to the stage, Elton’s masterpiece is expertly executed with a perfect mix of references to the well-loved TV series, originality and Shakespearean comedy’s trademarked chaos. A comedy of errors to the highest degree, Upstart Crow swings from the absurd (a tap-dancing bear) to the familiar (beloved David Mitchell’s dry wit), producing a comedy that Shakespeare himself would be chuckling at.
As fans of the TV series will know, Upstart Crow centres around mocking William Shakespeare – a very British way of paying sincere homage to the playwright. A similar narrative runs throughout its theatrical adaption; the plot pivots around Kate (Gemma Whelan) attempting to resurrect Shakespeare (Mitchell) from his writer’s block, to produce some of his best work yet. Well, best work that is ultimately heavily indebted to Kate, who as a woman, as she frequently reminds us, is not allowed to become an actor.
The narrative hysterically intertwines Othello and King Lear, creating a Shakespearean fever dream which stands perfectly on its own feet. Members of the audience gleefully mime along as Regan and Goneril’s speeches from King Lear are echoed onstage by Shakespeare’s daughters – Susanna (Helen Monks) and Judith (Danielle Phillips). After Monks’ profusion of love for her father, Mitchell pauses: “Hey, that was pretty good actually… can you repeat that?” – furiously scribbling down her words with an offensively tall quill.
But Upstart Crow goes far beyond its fabulous hybridisation of Shakespearean classics. This is a play with modern relevancy, positioning itself alongside present-day London; TFL’s announcement is given a Jacobean twist: “See it, Slay it, Slaughtered”. From parodying 17th-century misogyny to criticising Shakespeare for being a white man writing about a black man’s experience, this is also a play which thoroughly makes up for centuries of sexism, racism and gender rigidity in the theatre.
Its message never feels preachy though, owing to the genuine comedy of each gag. By the end of the performance, Desiree (Rachel Summers) plays a black man pretending to be a white man in order to be able to play a black man – Othello – in Shakespeare’s play. However, Desiree is, in the first place, a black woman disguised as a black man – but this is only known to the audience, adding a further layer of confusion and exposing how ludicrous social hierarchy is.
Shakespeare is meant for the stage, and Elton’s take on him is no exception. The same goes for Mitchell, Whelan and the rest of the cast, who give a flawless performance. By the end of the show, it’s easy to forget that Upstart Crow was ever just an onscreen-only spectacle. Once again, we are reminded just how relevant Shakespeare’s plays remain, and most importantly, how funny too.
Photo: Johan Persson
Upstart Crow is at Gielgud Theatre from 7th February until 25th April 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.