Theatre Review: The Upstart Crow

Rating: 4

By Richard Barber

It could so easily have been the play that went wrong. Ben Elton had a hit
on television with Upstart Crow, a scatological sitcom charting the fortunes of William Shakespeare. It lasted three series on BBC Two from 2016 but was then cancelled for who knows what reason.

Now Elton has taken the risky step of turning it into a full-length play (with the definite article inserted) and nor is it a stitching together of scenarios already seen. For the most part this is new material. And it’s a hoot.

Poor Will has had a couple of clunkers (his word) and is suffering a bad case of writer’s block. He can’t think of a plot that will appeal to a contemporary audience. But as Kate, his landlord’s daughter, keeps pointing out, there’s no shortage of material under his very nose.

So it is that a couple of identical twins turn up on his doorstep; a copy of something called King Lire is left in the smallest room, and a bear has escaped from captivity. The seeds are thus sown for Twelfth Night, King Lear and The Winter’s Tale respectively.

Elton doesn’t miss a trick playing with words and nor does Sean Foley’s breakneck direction overlook any available sight gags. I laughed out loud at the tiny masks which protect everyone’s true identity (and yes, that includes the bear) and the conceit that two people can hide behind the smallest tree in a garden without detection. Alice Power’s deliberately old-fashioned set, with painted, flapping backcloths, only adds to the pantomime atmosphere.  

But might the very funny David Mitchell, so good in the TV original and a boon to any passing panel show, falter on the West End stage? Not a bit of it. Indeed, he takes to it like a duck to the wet stuff, delivering Shakespearean lines and silly jokes with aplomb. ‘I’m not going bald,’ he protests at one point. ‘My hair’s just shy.’

The TV version took liberties with history by making Robert Greene, Elizabeth I’s theatre censor, active long after the presumed date of his death – Upstart Crow is set in 1604, so Shakespeare’s patron would be King James I and Greene’s appearance would stretch your credulity even further. So the moral conscience of the proceedings is now in the manic hands of Mark Heap, who plays Dr John Hall, a physician who suspects the dramatic arts, and one dramatist in particular, of treachery and obscenity. 

He’s a riot as a puritan who regards all theatre as a corrupting influence while being obliged to wear, Malvolio-style, a preposterous and unfeasibly large codpiece. Will’s two daughters (Helen Monks and Danielle Phillips) are gloriously saddled with Brummie accents so thick you could cut them with a blunt knife. And Gemma Whelan, precisely because she refuses to acknowledge the encircling mayhem, gives a glorious turn as the guileless Kate.

Although some of the contemporary PC brigade may find the humour too broad for their taste, the mix of bawdy and scholarly references is authentically Shakespearean. Elton’s own stock-in-trade, assisted by the advantage of four intervening centuries, is then-and-now ironies. The Stratford-London stagecoach, for example, spookily anticipates modern railway issues, including glibly alliterative anti-terrorism announcements. ‘See it! Say it! Slaughter it!’ I only wish Liza Tarbuck had been around to reprise her role as Anne Hathaway.

The Upstart Crow is at the Gielgud Theatre until April 25. Box office: 0844 482 5130 or