Mark Lawson wrote in The Guardian of 17 Feb 2020:
“Audiences unfamiliar with British TV will wonder why every entrance in the opening scenes of The Upstart Crow wins applause, a courtesy usually reserved for movie stars on stage. The reason is that most characters and actors are familiar from Ben Elton’s sitcom, Upstart Crow (2016-18), in which William Shakespeare’s playwriting career is blighted by resentful relatives, subversive servants and royal whim.
Staged TV comedies sometimes simply stitch together telly scripts, but Elton commendably creates a largely new piece. In transferring from BBC Two to the Gielgud theatre, the show has added “The” to its title, which is fitting, as The Upstart Crow is, theatrically, the definite article.
Keeping the template of focusing episodes around a particular play, Elton reuses some screen material involving African princes and identical twins, but the main structural underpinning is, freshly, King Lear, daringly made the basis for a farce also deftly incorporating the celebrated stage direction from The Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
The TV version took liberties with history by making Robert Greene, Elizabeth I’s theatre censor, active long after his presumed death date. With the play set in 1604, and Shakespeare’s patron now King James I, Greene’s appearance would be still more implausible, so Mark Heap now plays Dr John Hall, a Puritan physician who suspects theatre, and one dramatist in particular, of treachery and obscenity.
David Mitchell, listing no previous stage credits in the programme, is engaging and confident, reprising the shambling plagiarist dramatist of the TV series, but also required to deliver key King Lear speeches in earnest, which he does impeccably. Gemma Whelan, as Kate, the landlord’s daughter, charmingly portrays the frustration of an era in which women might occasionally be Queen but could never be actors. Danielle Phillips and Helen Monks are glorious as Shakespeare’s sassy, broad-Brummie daughters, and Jason Callender and Rachel Summers move fluently between comedy and tragedy in a Twelfth Night/Othello mashup subplot.
Director Sean Foley, a comedy specialist (Perfect Nonsense, The Ladykillers), had a rare misfire last year with an uncertain West End adaptation of the film The Man in the White Suit, but returns to top form. Punchlines and slapstick are meticulously timed, culminating in a spectacular sight-gag involving costumes (designer Alice Power) including a bear suit, an unfeasibly large codpiece and an escalatingly testicular pair of the baggy-thighed trousers Elton calls, in his one of his neat pieces of mock Elizabethan lingo, “puffling pants”.
Although some of the new Puritans who police our own culture may find the latter too broad, the mix of bawdy and scholarly references is authentically Shakespearean. Elton’s own speciality, helped by the advantage of four centuries, is then-and-now ironies. The Stratford-London stagecoach eerily anticipates modern railway issues, including glibly alliterative anti-terrorism announcements. Echoing Elton’s joke-about-woke novel, Identity Crisis (2019), other lines touch on possible contemporary contradictions between fluidity of expression and constriction of comment.
Oddly, Elton’s writing credit is for the “book” (more usually applied to dialogue in musicals), but this is emphatically a play – the most consistently funny and expertly staged comedy since Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, which similarly ignored recent social memos about the need for humour to tread carefully.”