Hit TV comedy series rarely transfer successfully from the comfort of your living room to the glare of a major West End theatre. Recently, Phoebe Waller-Bridges' Fleabag triumphed in a limited run at the Wyndhams, but the origin of that show was the Edinburgh Fringe. The long-running Only Fools and Horses, which aired over seven series on the BBC, is now cosily ensconced at the prestigious Theatre Royal, Haymarket – but reinvented as a musical.
There’s no reinvention about the latest screen-to-stage transfer – Ben Elton’s popular TV series Upstart Crow. Elton has added the definite article “the” to the title, but otherwise the formula and premise of the show remain the same – as do several members of the original cast.
For the uninitiated, the central character is Will Shakespeare, earnestly depicted with all his human foibles as a preeningly assured Elizabethan playwright and hilariously brought to life by the talented and appealing David Mitchell.
It’s 1604, ten years after the TV series ended. Will enjoys the patronage of King James, who is eagerly awaiting a new play from the most celebrated writer in England. Trouble is, it’s been a while since he’s had a hit. Hamlet was his last. His more recent efforts, Measure for Measure and All’s Well that Ends Well, were duds, and writer’s block is sapping his confidence. Plots, we learn, were never his forte, and, as Elton would lead us to believe, were filched from the books his landlady’s niece Kate (Gemma Whelan) left in the loo.
Grabbing inspiration from whatever situation presents itself, Will finds himself juggling three plot lines that will eventually become King Lear, Othello and, providing by far the funniest material, Twelfth Night. Malvolio is modelled on physician John Hall (Mark Heap), Will’s real-life future son-in-law, here depicted as a hypocritical puritan (called “pure- titty”) and hilariously tricked into wooing Kate by wearing a grossly exaggerated cod-piece flanked by inflated scrotum-shaped trousers called “puffing pants.”
A pair of Egyptians twins (Rachel Summers and Jason Callender), separated after a shipwreck, further fuel the plot by providing gender-bending romantic interest, as does a tap-dancing bear whose incongruous appearance furnishes Will with his most famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” There’s even a domestic spat between Wills’ Brummie daughters (Helen Monks and Danielle Phillips) that literally drives him mad.
Apart from these familiar plot mash-ups, Elton deliciously parodies such familiar Shakesperean devices as relying on flimsy eye-masks to disguise a character’s identity (especially funny when it is worn by the bear) and using anorexic garden plants behind which characters hide to avoid being seen.
Elton also provides a contemporary subtext, most notably on diversity, racism, sexism and how they all still apply five centuries later. He even has a go at the failure of our ongoing transport network via a reference to the inadequacy of the London to Stratford coach service Will and his ilk were forced to use in 1604.
There is no denying that much of the evening is laugh-out-loud funny, especially the scene when Will, oblivious that Kate has taken a coma-inducing potion, attempts to converse with her as her head lolls and she slides off her chair. Equally, though, there is no denying that, despite the parodic use of the bard’s vernacular being spot on, the stage version sometimes resembles an over-extended series of revue sketches that don’t always hit their mark.
And although Elton and his accomplished Olivier Award-winning comedy director Sean Foley attempt to vary the relentless farce-like pace by incorporating legitimate speeches from Lear as well as the death scene in Othello, a sense of repetition prevails.
The cast – most notably Mitchell, making his West End debut (hard to believe!) – has impeccable timing, something I didn’t always feel with certain other members of the over-acting cast, most notably Steve Speir’s blustering, occasionally difficult to decipher Burbage. No complaints, though, about Whelan’s Kate, Heap as the put-upon Malvolio-like puritan, Rob Rouse as Will’s faithful servant and Reice Weathers’ non-speaking, very human man-in-bear’s-clothing. He’s the most sympathetic character in the play, who earned his laughs without uttering a single word.