It’s Ian McKellen’s 80th birthday this year, and to celebrate he’s touring around 80 theatres in the United Kingdom, starting with a run of London theatres, big and small.
Last night at Richmond Theatre was the fifth stop in the tour, following The Space/St Paul’s, the National Theatre, the Young Vic, the Rose Theatre Kingston, and the Bridge. There’s a “trunk” on to which stickers are added for each stop, so that’s how we know!
The show opens with an extract from Lord of the Rings, in which McKellen had such a triumph as Gandalf, which starts to set the scene for much of the first half, with judicious name-dropping, memories, and humour.
We hear about the theatres of Bolton, and the alderman who helped the young McKellen to engage with the footlights; of Cambridge and the audition which helped him to a scholarship via Henry V; of family, and poetry (Wordsworth and Hopkins); and of coming out as gay at 48, over 30 years after a formative experience in the dress circle watching Ivor Novello.
There’s even a snippet of the pantomime dame, before the second half of the show kicks in to pure Shakespeare, with each play considered (or dismissed) in turn, with anecdotes, readings, performance, and more. It’s a masterclass in itself, with characters on the fringes including a John Gielgud Lear “hiding from Alan Badel, and memories of past productions like the wonderful Macbeth with Judi Dench.
No love for Measure for Measure or The Winter’s Tale, it seems, although some scenes from Richard II and Hamlet make up for it: odd, then, that the videos of McKellen’s performances in these plays remain unreleased. As for King Lear, it’s clear that book is closed, with “never, never, never again” – for those of us who saw it last year, we were fortunate indeed.
If you have a ticket on this tour, you’ll enjoy, and if last night was anything to go by, you’ll get your money’s worth, with a show that runs to nearly three hours.