London Theatre Review: The Upstart Crow

Updated on 26 February 2020

Ben Elton is to British comedy what the Bard was to white-ruffled tragedy – it’s hard to keep the two separate in a single thought. No surprise then that the BBC Two sitcom The Upstart Crow (2016-18) has made an easy transition to critical acclaim in the West End at the beautiful Gielgud Theatre.

The show is a hit – packed with intelligent, textured humour, acute historical insight, barbed wit and the welcome inclusion of a break-dancing bear. The laughs are beautifully crafted and consistent throughout. Absurd asides and sight gags abound, from discussions of blind-eyed trouser snakes to Python-esque frivolity in large seductive pants and quivering codpieces. What's perhaps more impressive, though, is the way The Upstart Crow seems to degrade and elevate each of its ensemble in equal measure, buoyed with a warmth and honesty that makes the whole thing seem, very, well... human.

Set in 1604, author and comedian David Mitchell (Mock The Week, Peep Show) reprises his sitcom role – with nary a stage credit – as the put-upon storyteller struggling to forgo artistic integrity in favour of a ‘hit’. On the verge of King Lear, we find Shakespeare in a state of frilled frenzy, gathering his material during stints in the privy and ranting obsessively at the ever-wonderful and ebullient Kate (Gemma Whelan).

Jabs from a Northern Bottom help to ground the audience when the written word runs amock. Mark Heap gives a spitting, snivelling performance as the Puritan physician who hates theatre and casts a fourth-wall melting glare over the audience at intervals (it's hard not to be reminded of Green Wing's unforgettable and wonderfully manic Alan Statham). Steve Speirs’ is also brilliant as the booming Orson Welles-esque Thespian, Burbage, and Shakespeare's dour Brummie daughters are played perfectly by Danielle Phillips and Helen Monks.

Set against a prudish and puritanical backdrop, the comedy meanders at a fast pace with flourishes of contemporary and period language mashed together with playful precision. As you’d expect, David Mitchell is brilliant and Ben Elton’s writing flows and blasts from him with devastating effect. At times you’ll be reminded of those spitting, sputtering rants that levelled so many seasoned comedy panels on British TV - ‘I’m not bald… I have a tall face!’

All in all, director Sean Foley (The Ladykillers) has brought the sitcom's devastating pairing of Ben Elton and David Mitchell to the stage in a powerful way. Shakespeare fans will exeunt with glee, it's all in there! Suspect hiding places, tiny masks, rants about stagecoach delays, puffling pants and the world's greatest stage direction... this is a marvellous mash-up of the scholarly and totally ridiculous, performed by some of Britain's finest comedians and comedy actors.

Pick up The Upstart Crow tickets today from just £24!

Don’t miss this hilarious helping of British comedy – The Upstart Crow tickets are on sale now at London Theatre Direct.

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