Sitcom Will’s stage debut was no error of comedy: LUKE JONES reviews The Upstart Crow starring David Mitchell
There is something so pleasing about a man in a pair of metre-wide, puffy breeches with a sarcastically long and pointy codpiece trying to hide behind a single bay tree – and getting away with it. Or an actual 8ft bear passing for a houseguest with the simple addition of a mask.
This is Ben Elton’s brilliant TV sitcom The Upstart Crow, revived, elongated and made flesh for the stage.
The plot of the show concerns Will Shakespeare (the genius wit David Mitchell), who has been churning out ‘clunkers’ of late and is in need of inspiration; and his friend Kate (Gemma Whelan), daughter of his London landlady and a frustrated actress. Frustrated because ‘wife, witch or wimple’ are her only career options.
The play is Jacobean satire straight out of the Blackadder playbook, but with a greater density of farcical sub-plots and mucky one-liners.
The Upstart Crow starring David Mitchell as his friend Kate, played by Gemma Whelan
On Saturday I was nestled deep in a sleepy matinee crowd when the place suddenly erupted in whoops, whistles and cheers (oddly American) as each face recognised from the television series made their entrance.
The sound of Werther’s Originals rolling off laps was deafening.
Writer Ben Elton has nailed the Shakespearean pastiche. The plot takes elements of Twelfth Night, Romeo And Juliet, The Tempest and Othello and mushes them into real-life complications, which slowly inspire our struggling playwright.
It’s essentially live sitcom, but better written. There is talk of ‘cod-dangles’ and ‘saucy ruffingtons’, people are ‘hornsome’ or ‘blubbersome’.
Will, motioning towards the door, pompously declares: ‘Though it may be ajar, it is not honey.’
Meanwhile, back in Stratford, Will’s daughters (in a particularly pleasing touch) speak in the broadest Brummie: ‘Yo’right, bab?’ Mitchell and Whelan, as the leads, are perfection.
He with his dry delivery and playful misanthropy; she wheeling out the best physical gags, with the sharpest timing and most expressive face in the business.
The plot takes elements of Twelfth Night, Romeo And Juliet, The Tempest and Othello
The sight of Will attempting to engage Kate in conversation – even though a potion has put her into a coma and she’s slowly slipping off her chair – will stay with me a while.
Mark Heap, as the insufferable Puritan who slaps his own face or punches his own nether regions to suppress any pleasure aroused by pies or women, is also an absolute treat.
With no exaggeration I estimate I was somewhere between full-throated guffaw and gentle titter for 70 per cent of the duration. It’s unashamedly entertaining, with its only issue being it doesn’t quite sustain two hours. There’s a reason sitcoms are 30 minutes.
Without a plot you care to see resolved, it occasionally sags like a pair of old puffling pants. But before you have time to glance down at your pear drops, it has you roaring again.