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If you want to see the kind of one man show that became legend, a show in the tradition of solo performances by Charles Laughton or John Gielgud or even Sarah Bernhardt, then check the internet to see when Ian McKellen is doing his performance near you and get tickets before they sell out. I caught up with McKellen’s solo performance at the Oxford Playhouse and was entranced throughout. It is a captivating evening put together to celebrate McKellen’s 80th birthday. He is using it as an opportunity to play in 80 theatres that were important to him in his career as well as some he has never played in before; and also to raise money for theatrical projects for each theatre.
The show is as unique as the man, delightfully entertaining and rivetingly intelligent; it is the kind of experience that theatre is supposed to be all about in its immediacy. It is a mixture of performing art, reminiscence, thought provocation and energetic cabaret.
As he himself says in the show, attending theatre is all about “now”, about this performer and this audience together for this unique occasion as it can never be again. For around two and a half hours, with a brief twenty-minute break, it is you the audience alone with one of the great actors, a man who is also a truly appealing entertainer.
McKellen’s evening touches, of course, on many of his most famous roles in film and theatre, starting with Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. He reads and reminisces and tells stories. He encourages audience comment and reactions. He is outrageously funny when he has to be and touching in the humorous tales of his personal life and the development of his career. He evokes in us all such poignancy when required that is most moving. You will learn a lot about theatre and a lot also about the man himself. It is a very personal show and there is no sense of artifice. It feels sincere and spontaneous throughout. Which, I believe, means he must have thought and worked very, very hard to get the performance to this level of naturalness.
Throughout the show McKellen is witty both verbally and physically, and he does some truly unforgettable double takes and facial expressions. He impersonates some of the people he is telling you about, doing memorable evocations of Patrick Stewart, Christopher Lee and John Gielgud for a start. But above all Ian McKellen conveys a warmth and charm that is irresistible; and the overall impact of the narration of his life and work is deeply humane.
There is an actor’s trunk on a bare stage from which McKellen removes, one at a time, relevant props which trigger the stories, the recitations and the reminiscences, each prop ending up on a table that becomes more and more full. Gandalf’s sword and hat are there, a movie actor’s canvas chair with McKellen’s misspelled name; and much more. The first half of the show is a narrative; and the second half is all about Shakespeare. I don’t want to give away all the surprises; and I don’t by any means know how much McKellen reworks the show on different nights. He is alone up there on that stage, addressing his audience, and so he can do what he wants as the spirit moves him. That is certainly the impression he gives; that he is largely reacting to the impulse of the moment. I imagine most of the material stays the same; as do also the many interactions with the audience that make us all feel such an integral part of his performance. I loved the stories of his Lancashire youth, his family, his education, his growing awareness of wanting to be an actor, his apprenticeship; and, of course, his coming out almost inadvertently on the radio in 1988 and what that did for him as a human being. And I loved all the moments from Shakespeare, especially the speech that Shakespeare wrote for the play Sir Thomas More.
The performance is, of course, a tour de force of memory, movement and style. You come away feeling you have met the man and that this is someone it is a real privilege to know. I cannot recommend this unique show or this unique actor highly enough.