Review The Upstart Crow, Gielgud Theatre

David Mitchell and Gemma Whelan in Upstart Crow at the Gielgud Theatre picture Johan Persson

David Mitchell and Gemma Whelan in Upstart Crow at the Gielgud Theatre picture Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

Belsize Park comic David Mitchell makes an affable Bard with writers block and a pressing need for a hit in Ben Elton’s sublimely silly Jacobean romp

Mark Heap in The Upstart Crow

Mark Heap in The Upstart Crow - Credit: Archant

Those unfamiliar with Ben Elton's hit TV comedy need not fear.

He and director Sean Foley have crafted a mostly original, stage-friendly, sublimely silly Jacobean romp in which David Mitchell reprises his plagiaraistic Bard - this time with writer's block and a pressing need to write a hit for James I.

Snatches of Othello, Twelfth Night, and even King Lear make an entrance, as does a brilliant dancing bear, who naturally pursues Stephen Speirs' blusteringly hammy Burbage from the stage.

A working knowledge of the Bard's output is helpful as there are numerous gags that affectionately spoof Shakespearean conventions, convoluted plots and mix of the low and highbrow.

David Mitchell and Gemma Whelan in Upstart Crow at the Gielgud Theatre. Photograph: Johan Persson

David Mitchell and Gemma Whelan in Upstart Crow at the Gielgud Theatre. Photograph: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant


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They way characters become invisible when hidden behind a thin tree or tiny mask - or break off mid-line for an audience aside, are all mined for all their comedy gold.

There's also much mileage in sending up pompous theatre folk, the terrible commute from Stratford to London, and contemporary 'wokeness' in a pair of shipwrecked African twins whose gender swap contortions see them tangled in a metatheatrical slew of trans/mixed race/same sex liaisons.

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The dialogue ranges from snatches of iambic pentameter to a made up Blackadder-esque Stuart-speak of 'puffling pants' 'coddling pieces' and 'Pure-titties'.

Likewise the action is a very Shakespearean blend of slapstick, high drama and cock jokes - there's even a hey nonny nonny dance at the end.

David Mitchell and Gemma Whelan in Upstart Crow at the Gielgud Theatre. Photograph: Johan Persson

David Mitchell and Gemma Whelan in Upstart Crow at the Gielgud Theatre. Photograph: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

Mark Heap makes a splendidly rabid Puritan whose lustiness gets his commeppance with a Malvolio style trick.

Helen Monks and Danielle Phillips are Wills' Brummie daughters who teach him a Lear-like lesson, and best of all is Gemma Whelan as landlord's daughter and wannabe actress Kate, as gifted at broad comedy as she is at her brief moment as Desdemona.

Called upon to both rage as Lear and deliver a good bottom joke, Mitchell makes an affable, riddle-loving, Bard in a show that looks as though the talented cast are having as much fun as we are.

4/5 stars

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