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
Last ten shows reviewed by Katre:
Battersea Arts Centre
Reviewed – 6th November 2019
“an essential piece of theatre that tells a story that deserved to be told long ago”
The Trojan Horse inquiry began as a counter-terrorism operation and ended as a symbol for modern Britain’s barely concealed Islamophobia. Spurred on by an anonymous letter, which detailed conservative Muslims plotting to “take over” Birmingham schools, education secretary Michael Gove took action, launching not only inquiries, but a sense of hysteria that was fed by a biased media.
Five years later it is widely accepted that this letter was a hoax, the planned takeover fictional, and the schools – far from breeding terrorism – were quite the opposite of extremist. But what of the teachers, suspended and under surveillance? What about the students who were caught in the crossfire? Birmingham City Council, disgruntled head teachers, worried parents, school governors – what do their lives look like now?
Based on 200 hours of interviews, LUNG Theatre answer these questions by asking us to relive Trojan Horse from the inside. What begins as a tale of redemption – a failing school turned around, teachers inspiring and students prospering – quickly devolves into a nightmare that is hard to endure and even harder to pull back from.
Five actors bring a fascinating group of characters to life. Rashid (Mustafa Chaudhry), who left school without any GCSEs, teaches Urdu at Park View, his life having been changed by school governor Tahir Alam (Qasim Mahmood). Alam is credited with having turned local schools around, allowing students like Farah (Gurkiran Kaur) to have hope that they can pursue success outside of Alum Rock. Former head teacher Elaine Buckley (Keshini Misha) is less than complimentary of Alam. Buckley claims she was forced out of her old school for refusing to bend to the will of parents and governors. She raises her concerns with Jess (Komal Amin) at Birmingham City Council; the anonymous letter arrives on Jess’ desk days later, giving Elaine the ammunition she needs. Though they are undoubtedly amalgamations of many people, these feel like whole characters, rather than representations of a certain viewpoint. This is thanks to the purposeful performances of the actors, particularly Mahmood’s unflinchingly honest Rashid and Misha’s vitriolic Buckley.
Once the letter leaks, the community crumbles under the weight of the controversy. School is no longer enjoyable: the students are subject to government surveillance and head counts of hijab wearers. Rashid is not an inspirational teacher, but a dangerous facilitator, and Tahir Alam his sinister leader. Hinge-top desks are wheeled around the stage to create classrooms and courtrooms, until we have no choice but to associate the two.
It is impossible not to watch and feel anger, above all else. Despite the inevitable conclusion, this is not a play where the audience leaves limp, their heads bowed with sadness. This is not a play that asks us to observe its content, clap politely, and go home. This is a play that demands action.
Trojan Horse is an essential piece of theatre that tells a story that deserved to be told long ago. Here I do my bit to transmit this story, to raise my small voice and ask that everyone that reads this go and see it. And, when the play goes to the Houses of Parliament in January 2020, I ask that everyone at Westminster – from the Prime Minister to the lowest government employee – do themselves the favour of watching and learning, not only about the power of the arts to tell stories, but from the mistakes of the past decade, in the hope that they will not be repeated in the next.
Reviewed by Harriet Corke
Photography by Ant Robling
Battersea Arts Centre until 16th November
Previously reviewed at this venue: