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BWW Review: IAN MCKELLEN ON STAGE, Harold Pinter Theatre


BWW Review: ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS, Nuffield Southampton TheatresSir Ian McKellen. On stage. Talking about theatre. That's it - five stars (could it ever be anything else?). But, before you click off BroadwayWorld, let me tell you a few reasons why Ian McKellen On Stage is one of the most enjoyable nights in a theatre I've ever had.

Ian McKellen On StageFollowing a national tour of his one-man show to celebrate McKellen's 80th birthday, On Stage is now at the Harold Pinter Theatre for a limited run. Directed by Sean Mathias, McKellen begins by sitting on a box with stickers from all the different venues to which he travelled last year.

At each venue, the theatres were able to spend some of the revenue generated on whatever they wanted and from the tour, over £3 million was raised. At the Pinter Theatre, the money gathered will support a host of worthy theatre charities.

After a long and distinguished career, McKellen will no doubt mean many things to many people. For me, he is fondly remembered first as Magneto, that cape-wearing master of magnetism from X-Men, and secondly as a wizard from a small film series called The Lord of the Rings. For others, McKellen might be remembered for his innumerable Shakespeare roles, though most recently King Lear at the Duke of York's Theatre, or for his recent theatre work with Patrick Stewart in plays by Pinter and Samuel Beckett both in London and on Broadway, or for his role in the Gay Rights Movement. Regardless, there's plenty here for everyone.

As Gandalf the wizard, however, McKellen enchanted a legion of followers, and so the show begins with the incantations against the dreaded Balrog of Moria: "You shall not pass!". From there, a spell is put on the audience as McKellen travels in the first half through his childhood and early career. In the second, we learn of his love of Shakespeare by working through the plays one by one with readings of and thoughts and observations on the Bard's corpus.

Not unlike Prospero, McKellen is at his best when conjuring imaginative landscapes and characters. His ability to envisage another person or character as he delivers his monologues is rapturous. To name a few, those referenced include Christopher Lee, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Laurence Olivier....the list goes on. Listening to him talk about Shakespeare is indescribable, and by goodness it is a treat.

For all the jokes (including a brilliant stint where McKellen channels a Welsh panto dame) and anecdotes (especially his description of seeing a production of Peter Pan as a young child), this show is a surprisingly touching portrayal of the power of reading and language. Whether it be an oversized Tolkien or a thin copy of The Comedy of Errors, the strength McKellen manages to extract from the printed word is astounding. As he reads, his career flows through him. Most touching moment of the evening is a reading from Shakespeare's late play Cymbeline that serves a memorial to departed friends and family.

Early on in the show, McKellen invites one lucky audience member up to hold Glamdring, Gandalf's sword from The Lord of the Rings. This evening, a young woman, Abbie, was chosen. When she drew the sword, she squealed with delight. Let's face it - we are all like Abbey, excited to be so close and intimate with one of the arts' leading men. Legends don't seem to come quite so humble, entertaining and moving as McKellen and, from beginning to end, this tour of his life and career so far is a complete and utter joy.

Ian McKellen on Stage is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 5 January, 2020

Photograph: Frederic Aranda

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