(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/28; Photo: God, I hate Shakespeare … Mark Uhre as Nick Bottom in Something Rotten! Photograph: Ann Baggley.)

The side-splitting Something Rotten! fondly mocks Shakespeare and musicals at the annual arts jamboree celebrated for both. It is a witty accompaniment to fresh takes on Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and Cymbeline

Something is rotten in the province of Ontario. It is the second number of the tentpole musical at Canada’s Stratford festival, the Shakespeare jamboree that has celebrated the British Bard of Avon for more than 70 years. This is a town where a street, a school and a pet hospital are called Romeo. But what’s that I hear? “God, I hate Shakespeare!” fumes the fellow on the revolutionary thrust stage of Stratford’s Festival theatre, asking how “a mediocre actor from a measly little town” managed to become “the brightest jewel in England’s royal crown”. The sacrilege rages on as the showboating Bard himself strides on to hog the spotlight for the song Will Power, and the “sultan of sonnets” brandishes a huge quill like a mic and shamelessly flirts with fans.

Bawdy, barmy and almost incessantly hilarious, Something Rotten! is the standout show of the 2024 Stratford season, fusing the festival’s two major traditions of Shakespeare and musical theatre. This Renaissance tale of budding playwright brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom (Mark Uhre and Henry Firmston), toiling in the shadow of the all-conquering Shakespeare (Jeff Lillico), picked up 10 Tony award nominations on its premiere in 2015 including best score (for brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick) and best book (co-written by longtime Guardian columnist John O’Farrell). Despite such success, it has inexplicably taken almost a decade for it to receive a UK premiere – but now a concert version will be staged for two nights at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane in August.

It is perfectly at home in Canada’s Stratford – settled in 1832 and surrounded by farmland – which has a theatrical reputation to rival its British namesake. There are irreverent gags galore about musical theatre as the Bottom brothers take advice from a soothsayer who assures them it’s the next big thing – cue fond mockery in a brassy, high-kicking, dizzyingly meta number that breaks down the genre’s key ingredients with references to Les Mis, Annie and scores of other shows. A Hamilton-style rap battle finds rhyming couplets fired across the stage and the show has a touch of The Producers, too, as the Bottoms workshop the song The Black Death (opening line: “What’s that coming up the Silk Road?”) complete with a chorus line of grim reapers.

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