Tag Archives: ian mckellen

Ian McKellen on Stage (Richmond Theatre)

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.

Ian McKellen
Ian McKellen

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.

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth at the RSC
Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth at the RSC

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.


King Lear (Duke of York’s)

Ten years ago we saw Ian McKellen play the title role in King Lear at the New London Theatre, a storming performance which was captured on film and shown on television.  Now he’s back for another crack at the complex role in a modernish production directed by Jonathan Munby and fresh from acclaim at the Chichester Festival.

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Ian McKellen (Lear)

This Lear rules a court dominated by a huge portrait of him in royal and military regalia, and although his map is one of the modern British Isles, his entourage pray to the old gods and seem in thrall of curses and the stars.  In a vignette opening, we have seen the old soldier stand, a sort of far ancestor of the Richard III he played in 1991 at the National Theatre, stiff and resolute.

When the old man states his intention to divide his kingdom, there is an exclamation of “what?”, and as each daughter takes the microphone to flatter their way into a coronet, we get the measure of their (Goneril and Regan in any case) duplicity and his weakness for flattery.

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Anita-Joy Uwajen (Cordelia), Sinead Cusack (Kent), Ian McKellen (Lear)

Claire Price is ice-cold as the elder daughter, who tolerates her meek husband Albany (Anthony Howell) for his connections as she watches elsewhere for a suitor.  In contrast, Kirsty Bushell starts calm enough as Regan, but becomes unhinged to the point of dancing like a dervish in Gloucester’s torture scene, and seems consumed by lust and power as the play progresses.

And finally, Anita-Joy Uwajen’s Cordelia convinces as the honest and loving child who takes up arms following her exile in marriage to the King of France and brings back strength to her ailing father.

Kent, often a difficult role to carry off, is played here by Sinead Cusack, as a Countess who disguises herself as a rough manservant (shades of Twelfth Night and the metamorphosis of Viola to Cesario).  She’s a convincing character, having fun with the text and yet portraying the sensitivity of a true friend to the King through female eyes.

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Ian McKellen (Lear) and Danny Webb (Gloucester)

As the unfortunate Earl of Gloucester, Danny Webb brings amusement to his astronomical charts, naivete about his sons and their intentions, and eventually pathos in the scenes at Dover with first the disguised Edgar, and then the broken-minded Lear; quite a contrast to his brutal Cornwall of the 2016 Old Vic production.

I always find the Edgar/Edmund plotline to slow down this already lengthy play, and neither Luke Thompson nor James Corrigan really convince, although I liked the camp and vain Oswald of Michael Matus, and the Fool (Lloyd Hutchinson) had his moments here and there.

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Ian McKellen (Lear)

But this is McKellen’s show, and whether raging against the daughters he feels have discarded his status, authority and dignity, losing his mind and faculties in a raging storm of rain, or presiding over a mock trial with offal and pig’s heads, he keeps your interest, and his final scene is completely, emotionally, heartbreaking, as the loss of his youngest child causes his own life to ebb away, but as it does we see within the dementia-stricken brain the brave soldier – who we saw, isolated, in the battle scene – as well as the anointed ruler who caused all to bend their knees in supplication.

A marvellous performance, and if this is McKellen’s final Shakespeare on the stage, we have been lucky indeed to “see so much” and “live so long”.  I found the production a little bit modern, and felt that the religious aspects were forgotten too quickly, but these are “just trifles here”.  This production is worth your time, and runs at the Duke of York’s until the second week in November 2018.

Buy the text of King Lear from Amazon UK

Buy the DVD of the New London theatre production from Amazon UK


TV series still without a DVD release

These titles are still missing in action, surviving but with no video release. They are also, with one or two exceptions, completely absent from the bootleg circuit.

Is any company out there interested in securing the rights to get these out in the world for archive TV lovers to enjoy?  Would lovers of comedy, drama, or period adaptations buy?

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Phyllis Calvert and Penelope Keith in Kate.  Photo via Nostalgia Central.

Kate – starring Phyllis Calvert.  38 episodes across three series, 1970-1972.  Made for Yorkshire Television.  Kate is an agony aunt who has a knack for getting into trouble.  Also features Penelope Keith and Jack Hedley.

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Helen: a Woman of Today – starring Alison Fiske and Martin Shaw.  13 episodes in a single series, 1973.  Made for London Weekend Television.  Helen is approaching middle-age and decides to end her marriage.  Also features Sharon Duce and Sheila Gish.

Bel Ami – starring Robin Ellis.  5 episodes, 1971.  Made for the BBC.  Adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel about the amoral Georges Duroy.  Also features Elvi Hale, Garfield Morgan, Arthur Pentelow and Peter Sallis.

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Stanley Baker and Daphne Slater in Jane Eyre.  Photo via Bronte Blog.

Jane Eyre – starring Daphne Slater and Stanley Baker.  6 episodes, 1956.  Made for the BBC – my thoughts on seeing it at a BFI screening here.  Rich adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë novel, in fact one of the best I have seen.

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Liza Goddard and Dinsdale Landen in Pig in the Middle.

Pig in the Middle – starring Liza Goddard, Joanna Van Gyseghem, Dinsdale Landen (and later Terence Brady).  20 episodes across three series, 1980-1983.  Made for London Weekend Television.  Comedy about the middle-aged Barty who is torn between two glamorous women.

Foxy Lady – starring Diane Keen and Geoffrey Burridge.  12 episodes across two series, 1982-1984.  Made for Granada Television.  Daisy joins a Northern newspaper in this breezy comedy.  Also features Gregor Fisher, Milton Johns and Patrick Troughton.

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The Informer – starring Ian Hendry.  21 episodes made across two series, but only 2 survive, 1966-1967.  Made for Associated-Rediffusion.  Alex is a former lawyer now released from prison, making a living on both sides of the law.  Also features Jean Marsh.

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Neil Innes as the Wizard with Toby Spelldragon in Puddle Lane.

Puddle Lane – children’s series with Neil Innes.  75 episodes, 1985-1989.  Made for Yorkshire Television.  A magician tells stories with the help of his cauldron and dragon. Also features Kate Lee.

Great Expectations – starring Dinsdale Landen.  13 episodes, of which 12 survive, 1959.  Made for the BBC.  The first television adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel.  Also features Colin Jeavons, Michael Gwynn, and Helen Lindsay.   The atmospheric opening episode is accessible at the BFI Mediatheque.

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Article from the Radio Times.  Janet Munro in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Scan via Britmovie.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – starring Janet Munro and Corin Redgrave.  4 episodes, of which 3 survive, 1968.  Made for the BBC.  Adaptation of the Anne Brontë novel, clips were shown on ‘The Brontës at the BBC’.  Also features Bryan Marshall, Megs Jenkins, and Felicity Kendal.

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Nicol Williamson, George Segal and Will Geer in Of Mice and Men.  Photo via eBay.

Of Mice and Men – starring George Segal and Nicol Williamson.  A two-hour drama, 1968.  Made for the American Broadcasting Company.  Adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel.  Also features Will Geer, Don Gordon and Joey Heatherton.

The Coral Island – with Nicholas Bond-Owen and Richard Gibson (I know of the German release without English soundtrack).  9 episodes, 1983.  Made for Thames Television.  Ralph, Jack and Peterkin find themselves shipwrecked.

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Ian Hendry and Nyree Dawn Porter in For Maddie With Love.

For Maddie With Love – starring Ian Hendry and Nyree Dawn Porter.  48 episodes over 2 series, 1980-1981.  Made for ATV.  Maddie is terminally ill and her husband and children have to come to terms with change.  An excellent and overlooked series, only one episode has been officially released on Network’s Soap Box set. Also features Colin Baker, Robert Lang and Bruce Montague.

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Dinsdale Landen in Devenish. Photo via Memorable TV.

Devenish – starring Dinsdale Landen.  14 episodes across 2 series, 1977-1978.  Made for Granada Television.  Prufrock Devenish is an amoral social climber in this nutty comedy.  Also features Doran Godwin, Terence Alexander, Geoffrey Bayldon and Michael Robbins.

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Clive Dunn and Michael Bentine in It’s a Square World.  

It’s a Square World – with Michael Bentine.  56 episodes, of which 45 survive, 1960-1964.  Made for the BBC.  Zany and influential sketch show .  Also features Frank Thornton and Clive Dunn.

Thirty Minute Theatre – just under 50 episodes survive from 285 (many never filmed), but only a handful have been released.  Includes key work from a variety of writers and directors.  Made for the BBC.

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Benedict Taylor and Paul Rogers in Barriers.

Barriers – starring Benedict Taylor.  20 episodes, 1981.  Billy seeks his adopted parents.  Made for Tyne Tees Television.  This has turned up on YouTube so I rewatched it in a poor quality copy, but it has stood up well.

Hamlet – starring Ian McKellen.  One-off film, 1970.  A co-production between the BBC and Prospect Theatre Company.  Also features John Woodvine, Faith Brook, and Susan Fleetwood.  One of the few colour Shakespeares that remains resolutely in the archives.

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David Swift and Richard Beckinsale in Bloomers.  Photo via Nostalgia Central.

Bloomers – starring Richard Beckinsale and Anna Calder Marshall.  5 episodes recorded of the planned six, 1979, this series was curtailed with Beckinsale’s death.  Made for the BBC.  A comedy in which a resting actor starts work in a flower shop.  I have seen the episodes in poor-quality copies, with thoughts here.

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William Windom in My World and Welcome to It.

My World and Welcome to It – starring William Windom.  26 episodes, 1969-1970.  Made for Sheldon Leonard Productions.  John Monroe observes and comments on his wife and family in this comedy based on artist/writer James Thurber.  I first saw this in the 1980s on Channel 4, and have seen the whole series on poor quality copies.

That’s my twenty most wanted at the moment – what’s yours?


No Man’s Land (Wyndham’s Theatre)

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One of theatre’s current hot tickets is Sean Mathias’ production of Harold Pinter’s ‘No Man’s Land’, which is running at the Wyndham’s.

It stars Ian McKellen as Spooner and Patrick Stewart as Hirst, in the roles originated forty-one years ago by John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.  Named after turn of the century cricketers (as are the supporting characters in this play, Briggs – played by Owen Teale – and Foster – played by Damien Molony), these elderly gentlemen are first introduced to us in Hirst’s opulent drinking den, knocking back neat whisky ‘as it is, absolutely as it is’ and sparring with words.

Hirst is the Yorkshireman made good, the working man who has become an accepted member of the literati, while the Lancastrian Spooner has a cultural background but is reduced to collecting beer mats in a seedy pub.  Hirst has a young, leather-jacketed housekeeper, Foster, and a bruising butler/cook, Briggs, who has a beautiful speech in act two about ‘Bolsover Street’.

McKellen’s reactions are, of course, priceless throughout, and he clearly relishes the comment about ‘consuming the male member’, while Stewart is in command on Pinter’s pauses and inflections throughout: making them a formidable team.  They also imbibe a lot of liquid refreshment in act one (which perhaps makes an interval necessary in an 100 minute play), while McKellen relishes a scrambled egg and bread breakfast in act two.

With Pinter, there are no real answers to what his plays are about.  They pinpoint the human condition, the intrusion of strangers, the faultiness of memories, the pointlessness of life.  Every word is weighted, every move is choreographed, the set is minimalist (chairs, a bar, a window, a light, and video projection which makes the trees at the top of the set appear to move with the sound of birdsong).

This is a superior piece of theatre, highly recommended.  It runs until December this year.


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