Review: Ian McKellen On Stage, Harold Pinter Theatre

Sir Ian McKellen is a story-telling machine of the highest calibre – even the creases about his eyes resemble that of a folded down page corner. Having recently turned 80, his is a life with many chapters. To mark the event, he has embarked on a UK-wide tour with his new one-man show Ian McKellen On Stage. Already with some 87 theatres under his belt, McKellen goes back to his roots by way of an earnest conversation with his audience. 

The ease with which McKellen performs is remarkable. It is as though he has returned home after a long day at work, kicked off his shoes and settled into his favourite armchair. The stage it seems, is a family heirloom handed down from a long line of public speakers (its form previously disguised as a pulpit, or the front of a classroom). Soon however, former dreams of hotel management, cookery and journalism give way to a love of the theatre. Though “Not as an actor” he muses, with a silvery grin, “not yet.”

It was Peter Pan that did it: The Palace Theatre in Manchester, aged three. What became an insatiable curiosity for stagecraft was awoken by a sheet of stars stuck to the main drape. That there are 88 known constellations is pretty fitting too, giving the circumstances – not least because McKellen is one of England’s brightest creative legacies. His celebrity, now illustrious in the extreme, is well deserved and this show is a true testament to his talent. 

McKellen is mercurial in the way that he slips from anecdote to memory, passage to poem. Signature scarf draped about his shoulders – this, a diaphanous blue – the voice of Gandalf bursts from his lips. “You shall not pass!” he cries, reading from the pages of J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. Tales of the Misty Mountains bleed into various side-splitting stories – details of his first erection (courtesy of Ivor Novello), a scholarship to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and coming-to-terms with his sexuality feature among other life-changing moments.

Political quips via Section 28 add to the sense of spontaneity that laces these episodes together. While working to further reinforce McKellen’s performative expertise, this introspection counters his steady humour with more serious notes. After taking a turnabout the stalls during the interval (a nod to As You Like It, and we do, we love it), the Second Act presents itself as a homage to William Shakespeare. Each of the playwright’s 37 plays march across the lid of a box of tricks at McKellen’s elbow, moving to the tune of a challenge – can we, his audience, name them all? 

Ian McKellen On Stage also pays tribute to other dearly departed talents – John Hurt, Alan Rickman et al – in addition to the decline of REP, and the loss of other theatres across the country. In this, we are permitted to map the geography of his heart. The result is sublime; McKellen makes every word dance. Throughout, he maintains, assuredly, that his success can be attributed to a close relationship with luck. Though, in his company, good fortune lies with that of the audience. It is an occasion to celebrate, for McKellen’s story is still being written.

Ian McKellen On Stage is playing the Harold Pinter Theatre until 5 January. For more information and tickets, visit the ATG Tickets website.