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REVIEW: The Upstart Crow – From bard to worse

David Mitchell and Gemma Whelan in Upstart Crow at the Gielgud Theatre. Photograph: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

TIM WALKER reviews The Upstart Crow at Gielgud Theatre, London.

There’s a kind of comedy – and writer of comedies – that makes you think how funny a line is, but, for one reason or another, you don’t laugh. The Upstart Crow is such a comedy and Ben Elton is such a writer.

I don’t doubt that Elton has sweated over this stage spin-off from his hit television series about William Shakespeare. Clever, well honed-jokes come at approximately three-minute intervals, as if they’re rolling off a production line: “All’s Well That Ends Well didn’t end well”; “the problem with As You Like It is that nobody liked it”; and, as for Hamlet, the Bard felt “the world needed a play about a depressed Danish student.”

There are also some visual gags that include a dancing bear called Mr Whiskers (Reice Weathers inside a convincing costume) and the supposedly puritanical Dr John Hall (Mark Heap) gets to wear a humongously large codpiece that recalls Rowan Atkinson’s in the first Blackadder series.

It’s all tried-and-tested, formulaic, I-see-what-you-just-did-there humour, and the members of the cast, to their great credit, give it all they’ve got. David Mitchell, in a bald cap, looks exactly like the Bard, and, while very much a television comedian rather than a stage actor, he delivers his lines efficiently. Gemma Whelan makes a charming Kate and Steve Speirs has a lot of fun as a hammy Richard Burbage.

There are some theatrical in-jokes about BAME casting, and the tired old rule that Shakespeare’s plays can only be performed by actors with perfect received pronunciation is gloriously broken by Danielle Phillips and Helen Monks as they take off Goneril and Regan in a King Lear skit. Jason Callender is fun as an unassuming chap who metamorphoses into a hugely high maintenance thesp.

The problem with writing a play where all that matters is the jokes is that plot and characterisation go out of the window. That, in turn, means that if the jokes aren’t hilarious – and I’m afraid not one of these made me so much as grin – then the whole exercise soon starts to feel contrived and tiring. It was hard not to pick up after a while on the strangely mechanical way Elton has of writing: if I had a pound for every time Mitchell uttered the word “literally” in a punchline, I could almost certainly afford to retire.

The director Sean Foley is a good and talented guy, but after firing an unexpected blank with The Man in The White Suit, he appears to have wanted a guaranteed success. On paper, this must have looked exactly that, with a brand, star name and writer that all seemed as safe as houses. What can never, alas, be taken as read is alchemy and that’s what’s lacking here.