Back in 2016, on the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, sardonic comedian David Mitchell shimmied onto our screens with a flurry of distinctive razor-sharp wit and a positively astronomical receding hairline. Steered at the helm by seasoned Blackadder writer, Ben Elton, the sitcom following the life and works of the esteemed English playwright was immediately greeted with rave reviews; The Independent gushed that “it may well be Elton’s finest work”, and The Telegraph commended the show’s “pleasingly erudite” yet “farcically funny” setup.
After 3 successful seasons in a primetime slot on BBC Two, Upstart Crow makes a triumphant return this month in London’s West End, starring David Mitchell in the titular role as a stumped Shakespeare gripped by writer’s block following the death of his young son, Hamnet.
The script is characteristically crammed full of bawdy one-liners, flashing quips about theatrical clichés and references to such Shakespearean productions as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear and Othello. It’s a fast-paced bonanza of one laugh after another, with hardly enough time to get a breath in before the next joke has already swept across the audience and you find yourself caught up in the deliciously dirty double-entendres littered throughout both lengthy, yet never quite tedious, acts.
At times, it feels as if the repetitive nature of the jibes at the forced “wokeness” of modern theatre and the admittedly excessive number of phallic references might drag Upstart Crow’s lightning pace down a notch, but the bouncy and vibrant performances of the supporting cast manage to keep it afloat. In particular, Gemma Whelan (Yara Greyjoy from Game of Thrones) puts on a stage-seizing performance as Shakespeare’s fictional sort-of adopted daughter, Kate, and Steve Spiers’s distinctive baritone is a welcome relief from Mitchell’s nasal take on the legendary bard.
It straddles the line between universal slapstick comedy – with many a crudely crowd-pleasing joke about sex – and a somewhat narrow target audience. That is, Upstart Crow is a roaringly funny ode to William Shakespeare, which is all well and good so long as you’ve actually read or seen a Shakespeare play yourself. The script is bursting with parodies of well-known couplets and motifs, some of which are common knowledge and some of which require a split-second hark back to GCSE-level English Literature class reading.
That being said, if you’re familiar with the original sitcom, you’ll appreciate how Mitchell and Elton’s consistently dry wit translates perfectly from screen to stage. Even with the distractions of an eye-wateringly OTT ‘codpiece’ and the typical overacting of a theatrical comedy, the sharp satire that made the BBC Two show a household name is woven throughout the script. The result is a cunning and convincing comedy – suspended on the assumption that we all did our GCSE revision.
As The Sun concedes, it is indeed “a play even the great bard would be proud of”.