wed 24/07/2024

Ian McKellen On Stage, Harold Pinter Theatre review - a master relishes the joy of theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Ian McKellen On Stage, Harold Pinter Theatre review - a master relishes the joy of theatre

Ian McKellen On Stage, Harold Pinter Theatre review - a master relishes the joy of theatre

Communicator par excellence on a journey from Gandalf to Macbeth via panto, Coronation Street and gender politics

Gandalf's hat and sword, Twankey's bag, Shakespeare's plays and a cup and saucer from Agatha Christie's Black Coffee: some of Sir Ian's props in a lifetime's performancesFrederic Aranda

Reviewing Ian McKellen's show is, in one sense, like appraising the Taj Mahal or Mount Everest: he too is an awe-inspiring phenomenon.

In another sense, Sir Ian is not like that at all, going out of his way to be available to the adoring patrons filling the theatre, apparently enjoying every minute of up to three hours from a jokey beginning geared to Gandalf and Widow Twankey to shaking a collecting bucket at the door as the audience leaves. Apparently indefatigable - despite this show marking his 80th birthday - he can even be found chatting to punters in the stalls during the interval. He is clearly enjoying himself hugely, but any accusations of self-gratification melt away in the light of his infectious love of theatre and the many thousands of pounds raised during his country-wide tour for numerous good causes mostly linked to the opening up of his beloved art form to as many people as possible.

Always blessed wih happy family support, he was taken to the theatre for the first time at the age of three to see Peter Pan. Although he was only too aware of the wires and could see that a torch stood in for Tinkerbell, he was hooked. Ever since, he's been fascinated by the workings of the stage - its business and its concomitant magic. Snazzy in simple black with a blue stole and two rows of tiny beads, his eyes twinkling with mischief, he seems to embody the joy of theatre - performance but also sharing the audience's pleasure in the moment. ("Now", that's theatre; film is a little bit "Then".) Does he run on some kind of magic theatre juice? He never even seems to stop for a sip of water.

Ian McKellen On Stage photo credit PIP/Camera PressIrish roots, Wigan, school trips to Stratford where the boys from his Bolton school pitched tents and took punts nightly to the theatre, led ultimately to Cambridge. The interview there consisted of the young Ian leaping on a chair when invited to perform a speech from Shakespeare and declaiming "Once more unto the breach" at full throttle, an incident he replays energetically for the audience. This is the only Shakespeare in the first half which has a masterly mix of moods and levels so that - despite causing frequent raucous laughter with cheeky anecdotes and, at one point, inviting a young person onstage for a selfie holding Gandalf's sword - he can end by reading Gerard Manley Hopkins to an absolutely attentive auditorium.

There's a marvellous moment when Sir Ian (inset, credit PIP/Camera Press) demonstrates a caricature of an octogenarian retainer he played in rep aged 22, dragging a contorted, crumbling body across the stage. It's simultaneously self-mocking and an enjoyment of his own still-youthful fitness. There are impressions too, such as a rather good Laurence Olivier - he was in the first National Theatre company - and the famous Welsh dame Wyn Calvin whose first tip to the tyro Twankey was: "Warm your bra on the radiator". 

After the break comes Shakespeare by way of Coronation Street (he appeared in 10 episodes), Buckingham Palace (for his knighthood) and activism. His account of gathering courage to break the news to his beloved stepmother Gladys that he is gay just before it becomes public is very moving. He was 47. She had, of course, known for 35 years. He has the knack of making a serious point resonate without labouring it: anyone previously ignorant of Section 28, for instance, will gain enough necessary information to explain Sir Ian's involvement in the fight for equality.

Shakespeare is handled with a light touch: the audience shout a title and he usually has something personal to say about the play. But there are enough opportunities for longer quotations too: Juliet as well as Romeo, for instance, and Hamlet's "Now I am alone" soliloquy. ("He's one of us, Hamlet - he loves theatre".) And, by running speeches together he comes up with a potted Macbeth based on the unforgettable 1976 production with Judi Dench - still the best ever.

A theatrical trunk plastered with jazzy labels recording everywhere he has performed this show dominates the stage. He jokes that his director, Sean Mathias, suggested that the audience would love it if he leapt out of it. He demurred. He returns gleefully to this idea at the very end, however, and then deftly slips in a plea for humanity in the world outside theatre by reading the only speech known to be written in Shakespeare's own hand. It comes from The Book of Sir Thomas More and is about immigration, the fear of the foreigner.

This is crowd-pleasing entertainment of a high order.


There's a marvellous moment when Sir Ian demonstrates a caricature of an octogenarian retainer he played in rep aged 22


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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