The Upstart Crow at Apollo Theatre
While some Covid-impacted productions have been continuously postponed, Ben Elton’s Olivier-nominated The Upstart Crow has thankfully re-roosted itself at the Apollo Theatre for a ten-week run. And, in short, this production has very much picked up where it left off – a laugh-a-minute hit from curtain up to final bow.
David Mitchell (Shakespeare), Gemma Whelan (Kate) and Rob Rouse (Bottom) reprise their famous roles, and are each applauded on their initial entrances. The story has moved on from the Elizabethan setting of the original sitcom to 1605, with the Bard under pressure from new monarch James I and his Brian Blessed-esque lead actor, Richard Burbage (Stewart Wright), to write a hit play. Fortunately, the sprightly Kate has a plan to relieve Shakespeare of his writer’s block by nudging him to reflect on his personal life as inspiration for his new work – which hurtles the plot and its cast into a cleverly crafted hybrid of Othello, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, with scene-stealing cameos from the infamous bear (Reice Weathers) – affectionally called Mr Whiskers here – of The Winter’s Tale.
The adroit interweaving of the core narrative aspects of those plays with lashings of the comic traits quintessential to Elton’s sitcom-focused oeuvre is the undeniable source of the show’s success. With Sean Foley at the directorial helm, too, nearly every punchline (physical and verbal) is directed with the slickest of comic timing.
There are occasional moments when the performers misjudge the impact of some jokes and continue over the laughter, but the plethora of expertly delivered gags elsewhere wholly overshadows them. The best example (one of hundreds crammed into a comically rich script), which wittily satirises the divisive economic policies of Truss and Kwateng, is suitably savoured by Jason Callender’s shipwrecked Egyptian prince, Arragon.
Indeed, Callender is one of numerous supporting actors who enrich the production’s hilarity, including Shakespeare’s memorably sassy Brummie daughters (Helen Monks’s Susanna and Danielle Phillips’s Judith) and the entertainingly austere, theatre-loathing Puritan, Dr John Hall (John Gordon Sinclair).
So, while Mitchell and Whelan might be the box office draws, the show, like the sitcom, is all the more appealing because of the depth of talent in the cast. Prices for some seats might be high, but those who are tempted would be more foolish than Falstaff to miss this comic delight.
The Upstart Crow is at Apollo Theatre from 23rd September until 3rd December 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.