Review - Upstart Crow starring David Mitchell at the Gielgud Theatre
West End and Broadway stages have long been a recycling centre for successful film titles, usually becoming musicals but occasionally plays (like The Graduate that played at this address); now TV series are also increasingly making the transition, like Only Fools and Horses (still at the Haymarket) and now Upstart Crow, Ben Elton's sitcom here renamed with a definitive article to become The Upstart Crow, but hardly making for a definitive piece of theatre.
This isn't to say it isn't a perfectly amiable night's entertainment, and given that it revolves around Shakespeare, it could be said that it has found its true home. But Shakespeare in Love has already been here, far more thoughtfully, in making a similar transition from screen to stage when the 1998 film was adapted by Lee Hall in 2014. In a programme note, Elton insists "this is an entirely original excursion not a TV adaptation... I've had the opportunity to add a whole new world of fun to the TV world we created. After all, Shakespeare lived and breathed theatre so it's just wonderful that The Upstart Crow is actually going to be in one!"
And one, moreover, that bears the name of one of our greatest Shakespearean actors of modern times, the late Sir John Gielgud. He may have appreciated the regular references to, and even extracts from, such plays as King Lear (a role he played several times), Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet and Othello, though he may not have been quite so warmly disposed to the swift dismissals afforded to Measure for Measure, All's Well That End's Well and The Merry Wives of Windsor. But as much as I feared that Gielgud may be rolling in his grave instead of rolling around in the aisles, it is fair to say that many in the audience were laughing heartily throughout, and it probably doesn't pay to be too po-faced about it.
It's certainly intended to be irreverent, gleefully and knowingly skewing modern theatrical practice as well as its classical origins. This being Ben Elton, who began his career as a stand-up, there are some good gags, particularly at the expense of modern theatrical preoccupations; there's also quite a lot of padding. Sean Foley's production adds lots of sight gags, too (including an outrageous codpiece for the Malvolio stand-in Dr. John Hall), and other assorted broad comic business.
After two duds (All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure), Shakespeare is found here trying desperately to come up with a crowd (and monarch) pleasing hit. As played by David Mitchell, reprising his TV role in his first major role for the stage, he is a blustering (and balding) ball of panic and energy. He is surrounded by other veterans of the TV version, including Gemma Whelan as Kate, Mark Heap and Rob Rouse, which gives it an added recognition factor.
The result is an old-fashioned West End comedy that returns Ben Elton to Shaftesbury Avenue with a play for the first time since Popcorn graced the Apollo across the street from the Gielgud in 1997. He has, of course, since written the books for such musicals as We Will Rock You, Tonight's the Night (Rod Stewart was in the house for the opening of this play), and Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Beautiful Game and Love Never Dies. Weirdly, Elton may still think he is writing a musical, as he is credited in the programme as author of the book here.
Upstart Crow tickets are available now.