'The Upstart Crow' review — David Mitchell and Gemma Whelan shine in theatre's love letter to Shakespeare

Sophie Thomas
Sophie Thomas

To tweak a line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night — if The Upstart Crow be the food of theatre, play on. Ben Elton’s Bard-based television comedy, originally commissioned for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s passing, is now a stage smash hit.

Shakespeare and his contemporaries couldn’t have fathomed our 21st century way of living. Would women be allowed to star in plays? Would a “notes app” Instagram post equate to a sonnet? As The Upstart Crow crashes modern-day ideas with an Elizabethan way of living, it’s easy to fall for the play’s rugged, bawdy charm, and its commitment to showcasing the continual power of live theatre.

Audiences meet Shakespeare as he struggles to produce a hit play: Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well did not live up to expectations. As he searches for much-needed inspiration, his peers influence his playwriting. Should he write with the King in mind? A highlighted question that rings louder with our new King Charles III.

In discovering ideas that are reminiscent of his pre-existing works (you'll want to brush up on your Shakespeare synopses beforehand), he eventually pens a play that becomes his saving grace and solidifies his status as the greatest English playwright.

The Upstart Crow is a vehicle for its TV stars to step into comfy slip-on brocades and walk into applause (who knew Shakespeare could feel like an episode of Friends?) David Mitchell gives a punchy, witty performance as the Bard himself, confidently strutting around the stage and delivering sharp, standup-esque commentary — in particular, Mitchell as an agitated Shakespeare on rail replacement services is sublime.

There’s excellent supporting work by Rob Rouse as Bottom, Helen Monks and Danielle Phillips as the thick-accented Black Country daughters Susannah and Judith, as well as The Upstart Crow newcomers Gloria Onitiri as the comedic Des/Desiree playing alongside Jason Callender as her long-list sibling Aragon, as well as John Gordon Sinclair as Dr. John Hall and Stewart Wright as Burbage.

But in a play where Shakespeare looks to reclaim his star power, it’s only fitting that Mitchell is sometimes overshadowed, notably by Gemma Whelan's tour-de-force performance as Kate. The flute-playing, cross-dressing, gender equality advocate commands the stage from the get go, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off of her, especially in Sean Foley’s fast-paced scene that uses elements of the fatal Romeo and Juliet potion.

The Upstart Crow is rich in literary and visual humour too. Tim Mitchell’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse candle-lit lighting is a haunting, atmospheric mood-enhancer, while Alice Power’s set and costume design tow the line between luxury and comedy: Dr John Hall’s protruding yellow and purple codpiece earns notable audience arousal.

Occasionally, The Upstart Crow winds up between a rock and a hard place; in acknowledging the inequalities of its time and playing up to them, can this play be as progressive as it strives for? On a number of moments, Shakespeare cuts contemporary issues short by assertively asking “can we not talk about it?”. It works for a one-off, but by the third time, the question awkwardly and lazily cuts conversation.

In a play that celebrates Shakespeare and his legacy in English-speaking theatre, it’s unsurprising then that the show veers into pantomime territory. There’s no audience participation, sweet throwing, or ghost train sketches in this Shakespearean tale. But the clear, unfaltering appreciation for theatre and live entertainment is the beating heart of The Upstart Crow.

As Kate shares with Shakespeare, “theatre helps our emotions.” In this turbulent sociopolitical world, it's a sheer joy to watch The Upstart Crow and escape the “futtocking” real world without consequence.

The Upstart Crow is at the Apollo Theatre to 3 December.

Photo credit: David Mitchell and Gemma Whelan in Upstart Crow (Photo by Johan Persson)

Originally published on

Subscribe to our newsletter to unlock exclusive London theatre updates!

Special offers, reviews and release dates for the best shows in town.

You can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy