The words ‘Shakespearean Comedy’ are enough to strike fear in the hearts of anyone who isn’t a through and through fan of the bard. But it turns out there is plenty of material, both real and imagined, about the world’s most famous playwright that is ripe for sit-com land.
Starring David Mitchell as William Shakespeare, Upstart Crow is a throwback to the sitcoms of the late 80s and early 90s. Even if you had no interest in production credits, the fact that it is written by Ben Elton would be immediately obvious to anyone with a passing interest in UK TV comedy.
The set up /gag/farce template was used to superb effect in his other classic shows such as Blackadder and The Thin Blue Line, and Elton does not deviate from that tried and tested formula at all for Upstart Crow. And why would he? Under his pen and Mitchell’s performance, Shakespeare is a well-meaning but arrogant and self-obsessed scribe. He is constantly striving for acceptance despite more than a dabble of plagiarism (as many academic scholars have theorised). Many of the episodes poke fun at his work with Romeo and Juliet, and the questionable age of the latter, coming in for particular ribbing.
The supporting cast is mostly your one-note jokes that pop up for gags when needed. The sublime Mark Heap shines as pantomime-esque antagonist Robert Greene. He milks each line of dialogue for all it’s worth. His over the top pronunciations and his constant secret asides to camera both mock and delight in the source material. Gemma Whelan (best known as Yara Greyjoy in Game Of Thrones) is the uppity feminist who longs to act but is constantly patronised. Liza Tarbuck provides heart as long-suffering wife, ready to support her husband but also pop his self-aggrandising balloon when needed.
At its worst, Upstart Crow relies too heavily on the running gags established early on. There is typical Elton wordplay in substituting swear words for period stylised alternatives. “He’s got me by the ballinbrookes!” being an overused example. And once you get used to the rhythm and bounce of the dialogue some scenes do become predictable.
One of the acting troupe has a spot-on Ricky Gervais impression which leads to some on the nose gags at The Office star’s expense. But fun as these are they can get a little wearing after a while.
Irritants aside, Upstart Crow does a fantastic job of re-establishing the classic sit-com formula. Farcical plot lines woven with gags that pop and delivered by great comedy acting chops result in a show that makes the difficult look effortlessly easy: making Shakespeare funny.
The first two seasons are on Netflix and are well worth both your love and labour before they are lost.
Words by Michael Record