Review of 'Ian McKellen on Stage'

Ian McKellen


Ian McKellen is a living legend having not only proven himself on the stage but also in film. I have enjoyed him in Beckett's “Waiting for Godot” at Theatre Royal, Haymarket where he famously starred with Patrick Stewart and also in No Man's Land a year or so later at Wyndham's Theatre (also with Stewart). In the UK is well known as a Shakespearean actor but world-wide most would know him from his role as Gandolf in Peter Jackson's “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films. When I heard he was coming to the Lyric, just down the road from me in Hammersmith, I jumped at the chance but, unfortunately, I jumped too late and missed the first set of tickets, however, when a second show (a matinee) was added I was more fortunate.

At 80 McKellen is showing no signs of slowing down which he convincingly demonstrated in his 2 1/2 hour show (including a 20 minute interval). This tour he is playing in venues up and down the country. The show is basically him on the stage rummaging through a trunk of props that prompts into recalling various memories and causing him to burst out into the occasional recitation, completely captivating the audience.

The show began with McKellen highlighted in a spotlight on the stage reciting a piece that many will be familiar with, his “You shall not pass” speech from Lord of the Rings where Gandolf is refusing to let the hideous Balrog from attacking our heroes where it ends with him falling into the abyss as he urges the group to flee. A stunning opener that ends with him having a volunteer from the audience coming up to hold Gandalf's sword, Glamdring (yes, the actual one from the films, which was given to him at the end of filming) after which he puts on the Gandalf hat, takes a selfie with the volunteer (a instant photo) and gives them a signed programme along with the photo. McKellen freely admits that he never actually read Tolkien but mentioned that many in the film were quite fanatical, reading it every year. Christopher Lee who played Saruman, he recalled, was one such actor who told him while shooting in New Zealand and much to McKellen's amusement always wanted to play Gandolf…

The first half of the show progressed with McKellen talking of his upbringing, career and loves including reciting of his favourite poem “Piano” by D. H. Lawrence. Early in his life he moved to Bolton where there were three theatres that he ended up being very attached to with his heart torn apart when the Bolton Grand was eventually torn down (seeing the roof off with seats exposed where people having seen him perform had sat…). He drew us a picture of his visiting Buckingham Palace to be knighted by the queen, humbled by the magnificent surroundings, pomp and circumstance only to be presented, with only a mumbled, half-heard series of directions on how to act during the ceremony, to the queen who was dressed in a rather unfashionable lime green dress.

I learned during the show that a film version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Cats” is coming out shortly where McKellen features as “Gus the Theatre Cat”. During our performance he recited the piece for Gus from the “Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats” book of poems by T. S. Elliot which “Cats” brings to life. He remarked that it was quite amazing to see Dame Judy Dench curled up on the stage as “Old Deuteronomy”.

A famous aspect of McKellen is that he is gay. Coming out was quite difficult and he recalled having held back from telling a relative who lived in the lake district until after quite some number of years when he finally told her only to have her say that she had known for many years! Another anecdote he related was living in Scotland with his lover where gay sex was illegal, “We broke the law most nights”.

After the interval McKellen focused on his Shakespearean acting by arranging the books of Shakespeare's plays on top of the trunk and asking members of the audience to shout out the names of the plays. One by one he recalled his experiences with the plays as they were shouted out, often stopping to recite a scene or two from each such as “What light through yonder window breaks?” from Romeo and Juliet. His talent, and, obviously, memory are absolutely incredible with each and every performance receiving a round of applause from a captivated audience. He had his childhood book of Shakespeare's plays that was smuggled onto Robin Island in South Africa when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there. Each of the inmates marked passages in the book that they admired/loved, Mandela highlighted one from Julius Caesar (how McKellen's personal copy of the book ended up on Robin Island was never explained).

The proceeds from the performance (and sales of the programme) went to the Lyric's “Next Generation” program which trains young people for careers in the performing arts. McKellen ended the performance with an appeal for the charity then went into the foyer with a plastic bucket to accept donations as the audience left the building.

An incredible treat to see a master at work on the stage who was never boring and captivated the full house with every word. His humour is gentle, his manner genteel, a true British treasure. I can see that only fans of McKellen or Shakespeare would really be interested in the show which is a pity as the man is a true force.

One can only hope to be as sprightly at 80!

Rating: “I have absolutely no complaints”

Review Date: 2019-03-03

Lyric Hammersmith

Location: London (England)

Address: Lyric Square, King St, London W6 0QL ENGLAND

Public Transport: TUBE Hammersmith

Telephone: +44 (0) 20 8741 6850


lyric.jpg The Lyric is the center of not only live theatre but also in encouraging young people in pursuing a career in the theatre. Recently it completed a refurbishment including the Reuben Foundation Wing with state of the art educational and entertainment facilities. The Lyric makes free tickets available to local residents and workers for every show's first night. Located above the Kings Mall the main classically-decorated horseshoe auditorium is more than 100 years old and there is also a roof-top bar and cafe.