Two years ago, I went to see the new play written by Ben Elton, Upstart Crow starring David Mitchell and Gemma Whelan, directed by Sean Foley, at the Gielgud Theatre in London's West End with former Bleeding Cool EIC Hannah Means-Shannon. Based on the successful BBC TV sitcom of the same name about the competing work life and family life of William Shakespeare, I thought it was glorious. But it was only on for a couple of weeks before the pandemic hit and the theatres were closed – ironically a plot point in the play itself, as that is just what happened in London during that Great Plague.
Two and a half years later it is being restaged at the Apollo Theatre, just up the road. from the 23rd of September to the 3rd of December. David Mitchell and Gemma Whelan are returning to the lead roles, though others, which included the TV cast of Steve Spiers, Rob Rouse and Mark Heap, have yet to have their casting announced. But odds are, Heap's role as the plague inspector may have to to be bumped up a little, Upstart Crow has always liked to reflect the obsessions of a modern audience as well as create a period piece. Anyway, here is what I wrote way back in February 2020. I've already bought tickets, this time I am bringing the kids, who loved watching Upstart Crow for the first time during lockdown, for our pantomime-watching winter event. It checks out.
This is what I wrote in February 2020. Taming Of The Shrew at the Globe which I saw a few days later, was rubbish in comparison.
Upstart Crow is the theatrical sequel to the BBC TV sitcom of the same name, with the same writer Ben Elton and pretty much the same cast. Directed by Sean Foley, it premiered last night in the Gielgud Theatre in London's West End. A show that regularly entertained millions on TV, entertained just hundreds, even at a full house. So how does the transfer of a TV show based on the life of a stage playwright transfer back to the stage?
Working with the cast available, it suffers most from a lack of Lisa Tarbuck's Anne Shakespeare, who grounded Will in the sitcom, and let out his guarded, more romantic side, while his live-in parents, also absent provided a constant domestic needling. But instead that means we get a story that focuses on David Mitchell's Will being a father, more than a son or husband. As in the TV show, Will's son Hamnet has died and he is pushed by his landlord's niece Kate, reprised by Gemma Whelan, into addressing this in his work, as well as his relationship with his two conniving-but-loving daughters, played by Helen Monks and Danielle Phillips.
Equally the lack of the actor characters Condell and Kempe, gives rise to two new actors on the stage – identical Egyptian twin prince-and-princesses Aragon played by Jason Callender and Desiree played by Rachel Summers, shipwrecked, washed up on the shores of England and trying to make their way in London. Which is where the farce begins – as Will slaps back at his landlord's niece Kate for criticising his own convoluted plots. This Comedy Of Errors not only has the princess dress as a man to gain acceptance but the prince dress as a woman. Cue all manner of gags to an advanced Egyptian society being more 'fluid of gender', but more strikingly, the race of the characters in London, and on the London stage are addressed, in regard to more recent developments in stage, television and film – and directly picking up online criticism of casting such roles in period pieces.
So we have Will writing in a time when it is common sense there are no black actors, female actors or black female actors on stage. And asked by Kate if, as a white balding middle aged man, he is the wrong person to write a story about a black character, points out that 'literally no one thinks that Kate' and that he is the greatest playwright in the world, so obviously that's fine. And he's not going bald. 'I have shy hair' etc.
And as an audience we are getting closer and closer to seeing Burbage in full blackface to prepare to the play 'The Moor', the play makes a deliciously judged, and very funny swerve. This play utterly goes to length to have its cake, eat it and then serve it up to every seated member with whipped cream on top. Burbage, reprised by Steve Speirs, becomes even more Brian Blessed-like, hamming it up to the audience in an increasingly amusing fashion.
And it's the audience which does change Upstart Crow – and it's a surprising change. The sitcom was filmed before a stage audience on London' South Bank – I've been myself. But the TV show can't acknowledge them – here, we are often directly addressed, and at one stage we get where the show never did, a full-on serious Shakespeare production without gags to dilute it which we, the audience, are privileged to see. It takes minutes, but even those minutes provide proper theatrical chills, and show the power of theatre, even as they spend the rest of the show making jokes about it. And even Mitchell gets his chance to shine, when he goes full Lear on us, even though the play can't resist in having it descend into a pathetic, laughable figure.
And the jokes do come fast and furious. Upstart Crow is a genuinely funny play – and I was with someone who has seen enough Shakespeare but never the sitcom and loved it too. There are knob gags and there are jokes that rely on an intimate level of knowledge of Shakespeare sitting side by side – and if you don't get one, you'll get another. And sometimes, as with references to the Earl of Southampton, you get both at the same time.
Because while Will's life with his daughters descends into that which will become King Lear, the play he is first inspired to write is Othello. It's essential for him, Measure For Measure and All's Well That Ends Well were flops (and didn't even end well) and The Merry Wives Of Windsor only had a nice title. And King James demands a new play. Something sexually transgressive – but not too much… and a relationship between a white woman and a black man will do, especially as such an inspiring scene is playing out in his household between the male-disguised Desiree and Kate. Little does he know, it's even more transgressive.
Familiar audiences will welcome the return of puffling pants, hugger-tuggers, Will's tortuous 'It's what I do', his revelatory 'hang on… hang the futtock on' and his obsessions with not being bald 'I have a very tall face' repeatedly and with glee. We also get a return of 'theatrical conventions' that hiding behind a tree might make one invisible, wearing a small domino mask makes one unrecognisable, and talking to the audience means no one else can hear you, to ludicrous degrees. This is a play that a familiar audience will know, but a new audience should warm to. And Will, as ever put in his place or having his worst instincts bolstered by his servant Bottom, reprised by Rob Rouse – who delivers one of the greatest pratfalls of stage history.
There is one major cast change. Mark Heap who played Robert Greene, who coined the term for Shakespeare that named the show, was available. But his role is now that of Doctor John Hall, a medical puritan with designs on Kate, and written to play up to Heap's prodigious clowning skills, with references to Malvolio but amped up because, apparently, Malvolio was a lot less funny than Will intended him to be. And Ben Elton applies the rule of three to make that increasingly more foolish.
It also provides a proper, welcome and appreciated sense of closure for Kate's frustrated journey in the TV show, reprised during the play. For fans of the TV show alone, this is an essential visit. Put off by the £150 ticket prices? I went to the Half-Price Ticket Booth in Leicester Square on the day of the sold-out show and they had stalls-standing tickets for £12.50 each. On Friday, opening night, on Shaftesbury Avenue – and they have them for tonight as well. And I didn't have to line up at 4.30 in the morning. Oh and you get to be first to the toilets/bar in the interval too.
As I said, I saw the show on opening night and it thoroughly deserved its standing ovation. There were a few stumbled lines – no retakes on the live stage – but that was all. The choreography was spot on, the scenery changes were minimal but created to generate laughs by themselves. We even got an audience clap-along. After having mocked and parodied the traditions of stage in the TV show, to use and embellish upon them the self-same tricks, is just another self-serving and self-keeping of that cake, and incredibly impressive to pull off.
I am also seeing Taming Of The Shrew at the Globe Theatre tomorrow. Which will be quite a confluence. Upstart Crow may not give you the deep-seated rocking to the core that a good Shakespeare production can do. But it has its moments, does do a thoroughly good job at recognising Shakespeare was a man subject to the foibles of life, present in his writing, was part of the world rather than above it – and recognises the many changes in his world since. While also sending up theatre, just as the original played with the family/work sitcom, by using a far older context. And the jokes are, at least funny. Very funny. Very funny indeed. Go.
Oh and there's a bear. A dancing bear. Should have mentioned. I have no idea who plays the bear but they were aces too [UPDATE: Turns out it was one Reice Weathers]
Also Dan Watters was in the audience. Look forward to some of this ending up in Lucifer perhaps?
Upstart Crow will be on at the Apollo Theatre. The TV series Upstart Crow is available in full on the BBC iPlayer.