The Upstart Crow
Reviewed – 18th February 2020
“What comes over as too silly, too exaggerated for me on the small screen, becomes uproarious comedy gold on stage”
This gloriously silly romp is clever, joyful and fabulously funny. There are enough Shakespearean references to please those who know their Bard, and mentions of so many of his plays I thought we were going for the full First Folio. But it’s all sewn together so finely that it never jars. It’s over the top and, at times, quite mad.
There were clearly a lot of fans of the TV series in the audience, and I have to confess that I don’t really like it on television. What comes over as too silly, too exaggerated for me on the small screen, becomes uproarious comedy gold on stage. The writing is very clever, and the twenty first century allusions to everything from sexism, racism and homophobia to leaves on the line never jars. Ben Elton has a genius for this, and he’s had a lot of fun with the script. “See it, Slay it, Slaughtered.” You’ll have to see it to find out where that came from!
David Mitchell’s Shakespeare is in need of inspiration. A new play has to be written for the Globe and he has writer’s block. His young friend Kate, a delightful Gemma Whelan, who desperately wants to act, but can’t because it’s 1605, reads a book on the loo. Books that Shakespeare steals his plots from. She tries to help him with ideas and, with the arrival of an assortment of characters including African princes, identical twins, a dancing bear, and a Malvolioesque Doctor Hall, the hapless playwright eventually comes up with a brilliant new play, and the best exit line ever. Mark Heap, as Doctor Hall brings true comedy magic with his ever larger pants and alarmingly cross-gartered cod-piece and Steve Speirs overacts with glee as Burbage. Helen Monks and Danielle Phillips are a delightful double act as Shakespeare’s daughters Susanna and Judith, and Rob Rouse’s servant, Bottom looks like he’s seen it all before, and probably has. The ‘African Princes,’ and supposedly identical, twins Desiree and Aragon, have arrived in the madness that is this particular form of Shakespeare’s London after a shipwreck, and Rachel Summers and Jason Callender enter into the cross dressing chaos with gusto. Reice Weathers deserves special mention for his portrayal of Mr Whiskers the Dancing Bear, and for spending the whole evening under stage lighting in a bear suit. The cast flip from contemporary language to Shakespearean verse with ease and energy, clearly enjoying the challenge. Director Sean Foley, has a real eye for comedy, wringing every last juicy bit of silliness from Elton’s script and Alice Power’s gorgeous set and costume design give us a London and Stratford recognisable from many a Shakespeare play.
The old ‘identical twins separated by disaster who don’t recognise each other because one is dressed as a girl’ thing is further complicated by a ‘black woman pretending to be a white man pretending to be a black man so she can play Othello’ thing, in a dizzying identity confusion. People fall in love with the wrong people, hide behind tiny trees and speak in loud asides that the others on stage can’t hear. It’s all as Shakespearean as can be. And it’s all rather wonderful.
Reviewed by Katre
Photography by Johan Persson
The Upstart Crow
Gielgud Theatre until 25th April
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