Review: Upstart Crow

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The final episode of the first series of Upstart Crow has aired and David Mitchell, who stars as the bard himself, confirmed on Twitter that there will be a second series. It follows the adventures of the up-and-coming playwright who still finds himself  struggling to make his mark in the hurlyburly of Elizabethan England. Action moves between London and Stratford, where Anne Hathaway, the children and his parents wait for him to hit it big. Rival playwrights Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene (Tim Downey and Mark Heap respectively) add conflict and competition while the landlord Bottom (Rob Rouse) and his daughter Kate (Gemma Whelan) try to help him out of his seemingly inevitable scrapes.

On the plus side, Mitchell is appealing in this shaping of Shakespeare as a dogged plodder to whom nothing comes easily and revision is his best friend. While the writing occasionally gives way to ‘it wasn’t all genius eh?’ sneers (more about that in moment), Mitchell brings to life the reality of someone who doesn’t have all the advantages of school and wealth like the envious Greene (who indeed called him ‘upstart crow’) but quite yearns to have that success (and he did, hence Greene’s seething envy). The cast as a whole are quite good. Heap has heaps of fun as Greene, Downey makes Marlowe the cool guy everyone wants to hang with. Liza Tarbuck gives Anne Hathaway a no-nonsense briskness that makes her a perfect partner to the constantly anxious Will. I like how the episodes end with the two of them talking things over together by the fire.

The actors Burbage, Condell and Kemp (Steve Spiers, Dominic Coleman, and Spencer Jones) have only had moments to be on stage, ironically. It would be great to see more of the theatre in the second series. Kemp’s dead-on mimicking of Gervais is hilarious the first time, but wears thin with repetition. It’s not the actor’s fault: it’s repetitious schtick.

And that’s the main problem. It’s all written by Ben Elton and well, it has all the problems that suggests. Elton and Richard Curtis — two writers whose work I mostly loathe — managed to write one of the finest comedy series around, Blackadder (there is a nice nod to Blackadder fans in the 6th episode). I don’t know how, maybe they beat the worst things out of each other. Comedy is often better with two people; that tension is useful.

The sad parts of Elton’s writing come through in far too much vulgarity (Shakepeare knew how and when to use it for best effect, not as a comedy sledgehammer), formulaic structure and especially for Kate, far too much very modern gender essentialism. I suppose some of it is just a sort of chip-on-the-shoulder (see joke Ep 6) effect of writing about a genius: Stoppard managed it well in Shakespeare in Love and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. You may notice some of his joke reappearing here.

The most grinding bore though is the formula though: oh here it comes, another thin series of jokes about transport between London and Stratford (isn’t privatisation great?), Mitchell manages to sell most of them anyway, but I admit to wincing every time they started. It’s a fun idea to have Shakespeare’s daughter a gloomy teen, but Helen Monks deserves better than a one-note part. Likewise Harry Enfield, who can be funny, but not here (comedy sledgehammer) and Kemp embodying Gervais’ smug obnoxiousness: one note. Let’s hope there’s a bit more of a melody in series two because the cast is good and the concept potentially rich with comedy.