The Upstart Crow
Gielgud Theatre, London Until April 25, 2hrs 20mins
This is a play that recycles the BBC Shakespeare sitcom and plonks in it a playhouse complete with ye olde crappe Tudor scenery. David Mitchell reprises his starring role as the exasperated, balding Bard who’s run out of puff plot-wise.
It’s 1605 and he admits he has ‘banged out a few clunkers of late’. He needs a hit.
Just as in Ben Elton’s series, Shakespeare’s household think he’s total rubbish at comedy –hard to argue with if you’ve ever sat through The Two Gentlemen Of Verona.
David Mitchell reprises his starring role as the exasperated, balding Bard who’s run out of puff plot-wise and Rob Rouse is Will’s outspoken servant Bottom (both above)
Mitchell recreates his role perfectly but doesn’t add to it. The real light in this cash-in spin-off is the wonderful Gemma Whelan as Kate, Will’s landlady’s daughter, who gives him the idea for King Lear.
She’s dying to be an actress but can’t, as it’s illegal. Whelan alone radiates warmth in three dimensions.
Danielle Phillips (Judith) and Helen Monks (Susanna) are the Bard’s sarky Brummie daughters. There’s no Mrs Shakespeare, so no Liza Tarbuck. Mark Heap – formerly the Elizabethan writer Robert Greene – now plays Dr John Hall, the self-abusing, Malvolio-like puritan with an enormous comedy codpiece.
The real light in this cash-in spin-off is the wonderful Gemma Whelan (above) as Kate, Will’s landlady’s daughter, who gives him the idea for King Lear
Steve Speirs is rotundly hammy as leading actor Burbage, and Rob Rouse is Will’s outspoken servant Bottom. There’s also a dancing bear that has escaped from The Globe, largely so that the celebrated stage direction ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ (from The Winter’s Tale) can be deployed.
Elton is at his best when he’s skewering the idiocies of today. I loved the public announcement encouraging the butchery of Catholic heretics: ‘See it, slay it, slaughtered.’
IT’S A FACT
The title of the TV series Upstart Crow came from an insult penned to describe Shakespeare by poet and playwright Robert Greene.
Indeed, laughter rolls around the theatre in panto fashion, with appropriately Dick Whittington-like backdrops.
Director Sean Foley keeps the pace going and redeems himself after the disastrous hash of The Man In The White Suit.
The show somehow shoehorns in a shipwrecked Egyptian princess, Desiree (Rachel Summers), and her twin, Arragon (Jason Callender). In this mash-up of the plots of Twelfth Night and Othello, there’s lots of stuff about gender fluidity and today’s theatrical pieties, to which Elton is alert and wokefully supportive.
Hats off to any show that can generate this much laughter. But, unlike the telly version, I found it relentless. Shakespeare In Love, which shone with such wit and romance, seems a golden memory compared to this one-note farce.
Olivier Stage, National Theatre, London Until May 13, 3hrs 30mins
Tony Kushner, America’s darling playwright, is perhaps too sacred to cut. His over-extended version of this 1956 tragi-comic classic – by Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt – is in dire need of hedge-trimmers.
It’s the story of the world’s richest woman, who returns to a hick town (relocated from Europe to the US) looking for revenge. This terrifying visitor – she has metal legs and seven ex-husbands! – is a whopping star part, played by Lauren Bacall at Chichester 25 years ago and now by Lesley Manville (Oscar nominee in 2018 and so good in the BBC’s Mum).
She triumphs in this, too, as a she-wolf in Paris fashions. Hugo Weaving plays the shopkeeper who impregnated and dumped her years before.
The action is too dragged out to sustain the play’s magic. Worth it, though, for Lesley Manville (above) on flying form as a rare bird of prey
The visitor offers the locals a deal: one billion dollars to kill her old lover. Greed soon eats up the town’s soul.
The small-town-America sets are a big-budget spectacle, and the smoky, live jazz score (from Paul Englishby) a treat. But the action is too dragged out to sustain the play’s magic.
Worth it, though, for Manville on flying form as a rare bird of prey.
Bridge Theatre, London Until March 14, 1hr
I first saw this gripping Caryl Churchill sci-fi play, inspired by creepy genetic technology, when it starred Michael Gambon as a bad dad encountering three sons, all played by Daniel Craig.
It is now back and Roger Allam stars as the father, whom we meet talking to Bernard. He has always believed he is a much-loved only child but has discovered he is not his father’s ‘original’ but one of ‘a number’ of identical sons.
The father knew he was a clone but not that the geneticist he hired for the job actually created ‘a number’ – about 20. A case, then, of send in the clones.
A Number is now back and Roger Allam (above) stars as the father, whom we meet talking to Bernard. He has always believed he is a much-loved only child but has discovered he is not
Further shocking revelations pour forth, written in overlapping dialogue (ie, the way people actually talk), which addresses the possibility that in some cold future we may not be individuals at all.
The staging, however, never conjures up test tubes or white coats. It takes place in an utterly normal home: bay window, net curtains, yucca plant. You can imagine a family from Gogglebox lounging on the sofa discussing Gareth Malone.
Colin Morgan is cast as the three young men. The star of the BBC series Merlin, he last year appeared at The Old Vic in All My Sons, which, if it wasn’t already taken, would be a better title for this show.
Morgan gives us, superbly, three distinct people: the first vulnerable and befuddled, the next feral and scary, the last chatty and cheerful, and speaking in the actor’s native Northern Irish voice.
The detail in all of these performances is minute. Watch how one son furtively glances at the mirror, as if to check he’s real.
But this is not so much a play about Frankenstein science as about every parent’s lot. Allam is hunched, fretful and reeking of failure. As a father to three sons, I watched aghast at how unerringly Churchill exposes parental regrets: the misreading of a child’s cries for help, the ache of self-reproach, the bungled making of amends.
What a graveyard of good intentions parenthood is!
Polly Findlay’s staging is a thrill. The room (designed by Lizzie Clachan) is magically rearranged in super-quick blackout scene changes to reveal different perspectives.
Two top-flight actors work hand in glove in an emotionally true and raw play that’s over in a trice.
Donmar Warehouse, London Until April 4, 40mins
This is an eerie, disturbing play about a country that has slipped into barbarism. First seen 20 years ago, Caryl Churchill’s creepy, dream-like prophecy – involving atrocities and show trials – stars the excellent Jessica Hynes.
We first meet her lying to a little girl who has seen something nasty – blood, a body bag, a child being beaten – in the woodshed.
Next there are two milliners (Aisling Loftus and Simon Manyonda) making outrageous Ascot hats – the same hats are then, shockingly, modelled by fearful condemned prisoners.
First seen 20 years ago, Caryl Churchill’s creepy, dream-like prophecy – involving atrocities and show trials – stars the excellent Jessica Hynes (above)
By the mad ending, all creatures are partisans at war – horses, wasps, dentists, the French. As for the mallards, ‘they’re on the side of the elephants and the Koreans’.
Lyndsey Turner directs this surreal dispatch from a warring future and makes it feel chillingly present. But at a mere 40 minutes it’ll probably only appeal to Churchill fans.
Alone In Berlin Royal & Derngate, Northampton
Until Sat, touring until March 28, 2hrs 40mins
This is about an ordinary working-class German couple who lose their soldier son in action and – in a campaign of lonely resistance – start to leave ‘Down with Hitler’ postcards in the stairwells of Berlin.
They are hunted down by a detective from the Gestapo.
German writer Hans Fallada’s acclaimed 1947 novel is translated and adapted by Alistair Beaton (it was also made into a 2016 film with Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson).
It is a black actor (the gentle Joseph Marcell) who plays the Gestapo detective and Julius D’Silva and Clive Mendus (above with Marcell and Jessica Walker) play a pair of Berlin low-lifes
Denis Conway and Charlotte Emmerson play Otto and Anna, who are emboldened by their grief and disgust, knowing it’s the guillotine if caught. Their marriage is sorely tested by this lethally dangerous campaign.
Julius D’Silva and Clive Mendus (both excellent) play a pair of Berlin low-lifes, Abiola Ogunbiyi is the dead son’s lover, with Jay Taylor never underacting as the sadistic SS officer.
It is a black actor (the gentle Joseph Marcell) who plays the Gestapo detective – a case of colour-blind casting that might raise an eyebrow. But he does the job.
James Dacre’s production echoes Berlin’s pioneering, pre-war theatre style, with added wry songs sung by Jessica Walker. But there’s too much technique. I wanted to feel more of the book’s thriller-ish thrust and its all-enveloping fog of evil.
Be More Chill
The Other Palace, London Until May 3, 2hrs 30mins
American musical Be More Chill feels like both a Nineties throwback (a high-school story about a dweeby kid who’ll do anything to be cool) and very much a Generation Z phenomenon (the soundtrack is a streaming sensation, listened to online by more than 350 million people, and this London premiere prompts whoops of recognition).
Joe Iconis’s songs have a brassy, pop-punk sound and prove catchy and funny enough to explain the phenomenon. And Young Adult novelist Ned Vizzini’s teenage-outsider story has an obvious, perennial appeal, here given a sci-fi twist: Jeremy (Scott Folan), our anxiety-riddled underdog, swallows a pill containing a supercomputer (embodied with devilish charisma by Stewart Clarke) that can make him popular.
That said, the relentlessly full-tilt, neon-bright, selfie-snapping teenager world is cartoonish and won’t appeal to everyone. The original New York director, Stephen Brackett, here mounts a small-scale production – what it lacks in flashy tech it mostly makes up for with pep.
Jeremy (Scott Folan, above with Bake Patrick Anderson), our anxiety-riddled underdog, swallows a pill containing a supercomputer that can make him popular
Renée Lamb stands out from a versatile chorus, while Blake Patrick Anderson sensitively embodies the spurned-best-mate part of Michael (clearly a fan favourite). As Jeremy, Folan may not have the sweetest voice but he makes the part his own with a guileless, fully adorable performance.
Be More Chill may be hot here too.