Riddles, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Churchill might have used that expression in 1939 in another context but to paraphrase it to describe a one-off West End stage play derived from a gag-ridden BBC TV series 'Upstart Crow' seems a good place to start. The cross-dressing gender and race-bending thrust and parry that underscores the whole script and the comedic experience of the plot rolled into two of Shakespeare's less-than-hilarious themes for Othello and King Lear makes your head spin. Ben Elton's writer's work on 'Upstart Crow' is intelligent, complex, demanding, but hugely funny. It out-bards the Bard in the funny-bone zone. There are some of the same TV familiarities with Shakespeare's (David Mitchell) "hang on - hang the futtock on" whenever Kate (Gemma Whelan) or Bottom (Rob Rouse) come up with a brilliant line or idea which he turns into his own. The running joke about puffling pants gets ever more gross as the play progresses when sported by (Mark Heap) as Dr John Hall (formerly the TV's Robert Greene) and 'hugger-tuggers' are not neglected either, nor the Earl of Southampton gag, nor the replacement coach service exasperation augmented by a splendid spoof of the continuously tedious 'See it; say it; sorted' refrain from public transport.
As you cannot have Othello without a Moor or two the offer includes splendid Egyptian twins Aragon (Jason Callender) and Desiree (Rachel Summers) with a battery of great lines about race and theatre and gender fluidity. Burbage (Steven Spiers) is eventually arrested off-stage for blacking-up as 'the Moor' which gives Kate (at last) the chance to get on stage as a woman playing a woman while he is incarcerated. There is also an 8 foot high dancing bear. It was a shame that Anne Hathaway couldn't make it (not that one - the other one played on TV by Lisa Tarbuck) but her brummie daughters (Danielle Phillips and Helen Monks) made it and were given more to say and indeed got more Jasper Carrot as the scenes progressed "Yorite"
The show when we saw it on opening night rightly ended with a much deserved standing ovation. If you have not seen the BBC series then this description of a play about a mash up of plays may not make any sense but it was such exhaustingly good and clever fun that I would recommend it to anyone who likes their Shakespeare with a pinch of Brian Rix. Go get it at the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue.