Was The Upstart Crow in the West End the critics' food of love, or the winter of their discontent?
Ben Elton's play is based on the hit TV sitcom about Shakespeare
Sarah Crompton, WhatsOnStage
"This play – like the TV sitcom from which it sprang – deserves the love lavished upon it. It is, it's true, full of a lot of daft gags about bottoms and codpieces and a fair amount of politically incorrect historical hindsight about BAME casting and the conditions of the Elizabethan stage. But it taps beautifully into two strong British traditions of writing: the immaculately conceived vaudevillian sight-gag and the cod historical drama, while revealing great knowledge of the Bard himself. And any show that features a sad-faced, tap-dancing bear, making regular appearances from the wings, gets my giggling vote.
"It helps that Shakespeare is played here, as on TV, by David Mitchell, a comic actor with no previous stage credits but with a real gift for being both put-upon and sardonic. His good-natured presence, and perfect timing, ground the play in all its whimsical absurdity, and create a character at once vain ('I'm not going bald. My hair's just shy'), preposterous and endearing."
"All the performances are beautifully pitched, switching between broad comedy and Shakespearean pastiche with ease, and Sean Foley's direction (on Alice Power's deliberately simplistic set) swings everything along with brisk efficiency and sensitive timing. The play's deep affection for all things Shakespearean shines through in wonderfully funny gags that serve as theatrical critique, including jokes about the way that putting on a tiny mask will render anyone (even a bear) unrecognisable, just as hiding behind a tiny tree makes them invisible."
Mark Lawson, The Guardian
"Audiences unfamiliar with British TV will wonder why every entrance in the opening scenes of The Upstart Crow wins applause, a courtesy usually reserved for movie stars on stage.
"The reason is that most characters and actors are familiar from Ben Elton's sitcom, Upstart Crow (2016 to 18), in which William Shakespeare's playwriting career is blighted by resentful relatives, subversive servants and royal whim."
"Mitchell, listing no previous stage credits in the programme, is engaging and confident, reprising the shambling plagiarist dramatist of the TV series, but also required to deliver key King Lear speeches in earnest, which he does impeccably. Gemma Whelan, as Kate, the landlord's daughter, charmingly portrays the frustration of an era in which women might occasionally be queen but could never be actors. Danielle Phillips and Helen Monks are glorious as Shakespeare's sassy, broad Brummie daughters, and Jason Callender and Rachel Summers move fluently between comedy and tragedy in a Twelfth Night / Othello mashup subplot."
Clive Davis, The Times
"There are no flagons of ale on sale in the foyer but Elton still turns a West End audience into noisily contented groundlings. One of the many pleasures of this high-spirited version of his Shakespearean BBC sitcom is that the spectators and the actors are on such intimate terms. A huge cheer went up when Mitchell, sporting that by-now familiar wig, made his first entrance.
"Not that this is remotely a one-man show. Elton's script democratically distributes the comic lines across the ensemble. If Mitchell gets his share of plums, so do Whelan and the rest of the cast. As you would expect, there is lots of coarse acting and mischievous anachronisms, yet this is no cheap and cheerful retread of the TV greatest hits."
"Rob Rouse supplies the cheerfully dim-witted, Baldrick-like interventions as Bottom, while Steve Speirs hams it up as Burbage, eager for a new showcase for his talents."
Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph
"Like a once-favoured jester banished from court who returns from exile to make amends, Elton has restored himself to favour in Theatreland with this joyously silly spin-off to his much-loved BBC Shakespeare sitcom, aided and abetted by a West End debut from Mitchell as the Bard."
"Rounds of applause greet the arrival of familiar faces onto the mock ye olde set, all wooden floorboards, flickering (replica) candles and wobbly scenic cloths. The loudest cheers are for Mitchell, who looks fittingly ridiculous in doublet and hose, but not out of his comfort zone: those looks startled and peeved, that voice nasal and oft indignant, that mix of cerebral aloofness and hearty approachability are all carried across intact from the small screen, only amplified (literally)."
"Throw in daft eavesdropping scenes, a dancing bear, terrific work from Rouse as the Baldrick-like sidekick Bottom and scene-stealing business from Mark Heap (Shax's rival Robert Greene on TV) and this is just the hey nonny-nonny nonsense the doctor ordered. Much to crow about, then, for Elton, the former comedy upstart. Let none speak of plague or theatre closures!"
Tim Bano, The Stage
"Where every episode of Upstart Crow modelled itself after a particular play and the real-life (ish) events in Shakespeare's life that prompted them, the play mashes around seven plots together, beginning with Twelfth Night. 'African' twins Desiree and Arragon (hilarious Summers and Callender), are shipwrecked, separated, decide to cross-dress and fall in love with the first people they see. The middle section nicks from King Lear, where Shakespeare's daughters Susanna and Judith – the brilliantly silly Monks and Phillips – become Goneril and Regan. By the end the focus is on Othello, as Shakespeare decides, radically, to cast actual black actors in black roles."
"Most of the original TV show cast is here on stage, which is a relief since they comprise some of the best comic actors around, with theatre's go-to comedy director Foley bringing out some marvellously full-on performances. Whelan, as Shakespeare's landlord's daughter Kate, is a joy to watch, and Rouse offers solid support as Bottom. Heap, as ever, is in a league of his own as puritanical Doctor John Hall, Malvolio'ed into wearing a gargantuan codpiece, sneering and buffooning his way through lines that he makes ten times funnier in the way only he can.
"The main attraction is Mitchell in his West End debut. He's as good on stage as in the sitcom, nailing the mix of haplessness, pomposity and occasional tenderness that is Elton's Will."