Ian McKellen on Stage at the Duke of York’s Theatre
“Peter said, ‘Clap if you believe in fairies.’ I started clapping and I’ve been clapping ever since.”
There’s a characteristic twinkle in Sir Ian McKellen’s eye as he lands yet another delightfully cheeky punchline. As ever, the legendary thespian paws playfully with his material, every word delivered with a perfectly timed yet effortlessly poetic precision. But unlike the countless theatrical runs that have defined his career, in this production, the main character is none other than the actor himself.
The audience sit forward, wide-eyed as kids at Christmas as McKellen takes us through 80 years as the protagonist of a life well lived and well loved – covering everything from Peter Pan to Peter Jackson. Indeed, our host enters clutching a copy of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, taking us by the hand and transporting us deep into Middle Earth, where Gandalf – his biggest and most iconic onscreen role – takes on the mighty Balrog. From here we rewind back to the star’s first and greatest love: the stage. In the midst of impassioned soliloquies, backstage anecdotes and even a fabulously sassy appearance from Aladdin‘s pantomime dame Widow Twankey, the co-founder of LGBT rights charity Stonewall also treats us to honest, self-reflective glimpses into his sexuality and his battle against homophobia, not shying away from the occasional (warmly received) political jibe.
“Has anyone here been to Buckingham Palace?” the actor inquires with humour as he not-so-subtly segues into his knighthood. But make no mistake, there is no pretension to be found in this theatre. Despite finding fame after being offered a scholarship at Cambridge, McKellen’s down-to-earth, easy-going openness proves he is still a Lancashire lad through and through. The whole show is staged as a cosy chat, the set design inviting us in with rugs in warm hues of red and gold. Sean Mathias’s direction is equally immersive, structured around a series of props that McKellen unearths one by one from his box of treasures.
After the interval, Sir Ian pays a fitting homage to the playwright who has furnished him with his most memorable roles at both the National Theatre and the RSC, the inimitable Shakespeare. As the star challenges us to go through the entirety of the Bard’s anthology, he rewards us with a story, a witty remark – “I haven’t actually read this one” – or a special performance. The animated octogenarian frequently breaks down the barriers between himself and the audience, pointedly addressing everyone from the stalls to the upper circle, and at one point even asking a fan onto the stage – much to the jealousy of everyone else.
McKellen defies his years, delivering an utterly captivating, two-and-a-half-hour one-man retrospective with the vitality of a man a quarter of his age. Showing no signs of slowing down – suggested, perhaps, by the marked lack of a falling curtain – the charismatic actor once again bows out with absolute grace.
Ian McKellen on Stage was at the Duke of York’s Theatre on 7th March 2019 and will be touring the UK until 25th August 2019. For further information or to book visit the actor’s website here.