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Review: Ben Elton's Upstart Crow, Gielgud Theatre - a serious comedy that doesn't take itself too seriously

It doesn't matter if you've never seen Ben Elton's TV comedy series, Upstart Crow, (I hadn't) as the stage play is a stand-alone piece.

David Mitchell  Gemma Whelan  Credit Johan Persson (02)
David Mitchell and  Gemma Whelan in Upstart Crow the play. Photo: Johan Persson

Having some familiarity with Shakespeare's plays helps although I confess I couldn't tell you the plot of Measure for Measure or Alls Well That Ends Well.

Upstart Crow (the play) centres on Shakespeare's search for inspiration for his next hit but along the way has a rich vein of commentary on gender inequality, immigration, religion and the acting profession.

There are also a lot of cod-piece jokes and a brilliant dancing bear.

Elton cleverly weaves strands of Shakespeare's actual plays into the plot while simultaneously ridiculing them.  King Lear, Othello and Twelfth Night are mixed with nods to Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, A Comedy of Errors, The Tempest and more all of which have the more outlandish and suspect aspects of their stories exposed.

Helen Monks  Mark Heap  Gemma Whelan  Danielle Phillips  Rob Rouse  David Mitchell  Rachel Summers  Jason Callender  Credit Johan Persson
Helen Monks, Mark Heap, Gemma Whelan, Danielle Phillips, Rob Rouse, David Mitchell, Rachel Summers and Jason Callender in Upstart Crow the play. Photo: Johan Persson

The parallel reality of stage worlds also gets a good poking - women dressing as boys and no one noticing and characters hiding in plain sight.

Some of the jokes you see being set up and the fun is in the anticipation but others sneak up on you.

But what makes this all the more entertaining is the thread of 21st-century references that run throughout often taking a contemporary phrase or occurrence and giving it a 16th-century twist - 'See it. Say It. Sorted.' becomes 'See it. Slay it. Slaughtered.' It's funnier in context, obviously.

Mitchell is suitably dry and egotistical Shakespeare who's career is bolstered by his landlady Anne Hathaway (Gemma Whelan) who secretly feeds him all his best ideas.

She is also the brains, the voice of sense and reason which of course he ignores until it is his own idea.

Mark Heap  Credit Johan Persson (02)
Mark Heap in Upstart Crow the play. Photo: Johan Persson

Mark Heap channels a bit of Dr Alan Statham from Green Wing playing a lustful, self-flagellating puritan whom Shakespeare decides to "Malvolio" and trick into wearing increasingly ridiculous outfits.

My only slight niggle was that there were just one or two occasions when it was difficult to tell whether it was satire or lazy stereotypes.

Otherwise, Upstart Crow is laugh-out-loud funny, mixing sharp wit, clever satire with utter silliness and slapstick.

It is a serious comedy that doesn't take itself too seriously and I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.

See it at the Gielgud Theatre until 25 April and it's 2 and 20 minutes including an interval.

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