Review - Ian McKellen on Stage at the Harold Pinter Theatre
An unadulterated love letter to the theatre, to the actor's life and the prose and poetry that fuel both, Ian McKellen's latest one-man show is a thing of sheer joy and utter wonder: an act of selfless generosity and warmth in every regard.
There is, of course, an ever-present danger in any one-person show that it could become an act of self-regard, and it is unquestionably true that McKellen, too, has a lot to be proud of, so he could be forgiven for indulging those qualities. But though false modesty is not one of his vices, this show is also an act of humility, humanity and gratitude; he is a vessel for the words of others - particularly his beloved William Shakespeare - that he communicates with spellbinding intensity and hushed intimacy.
It is also his birthday gift to himself - and to the nation. The show was born as a public charity celebration of his 80th birthday, visiting some 80 theatres across London and the rest of the country, many of which he had a long and personal connection to, and allowing each theatre to designate the beneficiaries of the proceeds raised in each place.
Now he has brought it to the West End for a further fundraising run of 80 more performances, just as he did when he previously brought a show called Acting Shakespeare to the Playhouse Theatre in 1987 to benefit the London Lighthouse, a west London hospice for those affected by HIV and AIDS.
The show is effortlessly structured in two distinct but well-honed acts. He begins with Gandalf - the role that made him internationally celebrated in the film versions of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings - and it includes a nod to his celebrity status when he invites an audience member on stage for a selfie with his Gandalf sword and autographed programme.
But he is also regularly accessible, wandering the stalls in the interval and greeting exiting theatregoers in the foyer afterwards (where he holds a collection bucket for further donations that will benefit some ten charities working with a cross-section of people involved with the arts).
The first act also contains much personal biography - we learn, for example, that long before he decided to become an actor he contemplated a career in hotel management, and also toyed with becoming a chef or journalist, but we also find out how the theatrical seed was planted young, when he saw a performance of Peter Pan at the age of three in his native Wigan, before his family relocated to Bolton which was a thriving theatrical hub with three theatres.
We also learn of how a speech from Henry V secured him a scholarship at Cambridge, and how appearing in 21 undergraduate productions there set him on his way to becoming an actor, which he began doing professionally in fortnightly rep at the then-new Belgrade Coventry Theatre, earning £8 and 10 shillings a week to play as cast in plays by Shaw, Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, amongst others.
It is poignant and revelatory to hear his anecdotes about this now vanished age: an oral history that needs to be preserved. We also hear of his official coming out as gay at the age of 47, on a radio programme that was pre-recorded with a right-wing newspaper editor Peregrine Worsthorne and his hurried trip back home to tell his beloved stepmother Gladys the news before she heard it publicly. (Though, of course, she had long known this). There's a delightful preview of Gus - the Theatre Cat that he will play in the forthcoming film version of TS Eliot and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, plus poetry from Gerard Manley Hopkins and others.
But it is in the second act that McKellen really comes into his own, with a celebration of all 37 plays of William Shakespeare (though he admits he has nothing at all to say about Troilus and Cressida); acting scenes from many of them, and offering a rich treasure trove of anecdotes about other productions in which he did not appear (there's a truly priceless Gielgud story about the veteran actor Alan Badel).
McKellen is a consummate stage actor, able to speak directly and intimately to every single person listening to his rapt delivery of this rich language.
I've been privileged to see McKellen for some 40 years on stage; the first time I ever saw him on stage was in the original production of Martin Sherman's Bent at the Royal Court in 1979. As a young gay man, it changed my life, offering a highly charged perspective on a chapter of gay history I knew nothing about. I am forever grateful to McKellen for his part in this; but I am now forever grateful, too, for the opportunity to share this remarkable journey through his life and career.
Ian McKellen on Stage: With Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and You tickets are available now.
Photo credit: Frederic Aranda