Shakespeare just can’t escape the plague. The David Mitchell-led BBC sitcom Upstart Crow made a triumphant transfer to the stage in February 2020, only to see the playhouses closed by Covid. Happily, all’s well that ends well: Ben Elton’s comedy is back, with Mitchell resuming his excellent West End debut.
Oddly, one aspect of its premise does reflect our current times: England has a new king, following years of Elizabethan rule. Shakespeare needs to impress the monarch with a popular hit, and thus defy his Puritan persecutors, so his landlady’s daughter Kate slips him the story of King Lear (a strong running gag is the great man’s propensity for nicking other people’s plots).
In a tangle of life imitating art, and vice versa, Elton also chucks in elements of Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale. It’s like a chaotic version of Shakespeare in Love – albeit definitely more Blackadder than Stoppard; none of the parallels here deepen the action, particularly. But Elton astutely riffs on the goofier theatrical tropes, such as the prevalence of identical twins, or how characters can transform themselves with a mask.
Perhaps reflecting on our modern Puritanism, Elton includes some critiques, like Kate questioning whether a white man should be writing black characters. Elton also adds a dig at the Prime Minister’s mini-Budget. But any satire is short-lived.
Sean Foley’s joyful production is pure laugh-til-it-hurts panto pleasure, with a bom-Bard-ment of fun: pratfalls, knob jokes and silly cod-period language.
Designer Alice Power gets the biggest laugh with her enormous sight gag: the priggish doctor sporting obscene, basketball-sized breeches and a straining, cross-gartered banana of a codpiece.
Mitchell is convincing as a pompous yet insecure Shakespeare. He also delivers Lear’s speeches with aplomb; surely more stage work beckons.
Tremendous, too, are Gemma Whelan as aspiring actress Kate, Rob Rouse as Shakespeare’s wry servant, Stewart Wright as a booming Burbage and John Gordon Sinclair as the doctor.
The production has heart as well. Shakespeare is still grieving the loss of his son Hamnet, and gradually reconnects with his heavily- Brummy-accented daughters (the perfectly stroppy Helen Monks and Danielle Phillips).
A welcome return for this merry feast of a show.
Until Dec 3; upstartcrowthecomedy.com