Upstart Crow | TV review by Steve Bennett © BBC/Colin Hutton

Upstart Crow

Note: This review is from 2016

TV review by Steve Bennett

Gadzooks! After some high-profile flops in both hemispheres, Ben Elton has rediscovered his mojo… and all it took was a return trip to Elizabethan England.

Of course there is more than a touch of Blackadder II in Upstart Crow, in which he throws modern sensibilities over the world of Shakespeare. But although it is impossible not to draw comparisons, this is a comic triumph all of its own, with a scabard-sharp script and A-grade cast on top form.

David Mitchell’s Shakespeare is imagined as that sitcom staple: a status-obsessed middle-class bloke; a self-made man from the Midlands both convinced of his genius and insecure about it, stuck with a family who don’t appreciate him. He’s also diffident to the posh blokes who run the world, both resenting the way their standings are handed to them on a besilvered platter, and wanting so desperately to join their ranks.

The opening scene has his daughter, Susannah, reading out Juliet’s balcony speech with typical teenage indifference. In a typical postmodern gag everyone, including his father (Harry Enfield, criminally underused in this episode) and wife (Lisa Tarbuck) tells him ‘wherefore art thou?’ will DEFINITELY be interpreted as ‘where?’ not ‘why?’, but the proud, pedantic playwright is having none of it.

It’s not the best scene in the show, but does establish the tone. And once this is dispatched with, the farcical plot gets under way, with Elton cleverly interweaving elements of the Romeo and Juliet story into Bill’s comedy predicament. It’s a mechanism that allows the script to work on dual levels, slipping in wry lines the Shakespeare-savvy will smirk at, flattering themselves at getting the joke, while the broader, more slapstick story plays out in the foreground.

In a similar tone, modern-day concerns about the marginalisation of women get an outing – but with ridiculous exaggeration, thanks to ageing drag actor Kempleton (Dominic Coleman) insisting on playing the 13-year-old ingenue, since it’d never do for an actual girl to take such a job. Another particularly brilliant touch is Spencer Jones playing fellow thespian Kempe as a 16th Century Ricky Gervais, another step in Jones’s fast-rising career.

With a surfeit of such sly gags, you’d swear the 30-minute episode was longer, so many jokes and so much plot does Elton cram in.

In the opening episode, Will must harbour the easily lovestruck Florian (Edinburgh favourite Kieran Hodgson) in Shakespeare’s London home, where  Rob Rouse manages to make manservant Bottom just different enough from Baldrick Naturally enough the simple babysitting task turns to broad farce by an old plot-twist, but a dependable one.

 And in this super-heightened environment, excesses are normalised, allowing the scope for plenty of big, bold jokes which Elton gleefully seizes with both hands.

The result is that Upstart Crow might just be funny enough for us all to pretend The Wright Way never happened.

Review date: 9 May 2016
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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