Paul T Davies reviews Ian McKellen On Stage with Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and You at the Mercury Theatre Colchester as part of its UK Tour.
If you see a lot of theatre, as I do, it’s easy to become jaded, to hit a run of productions that leave you unsatisfied. There’s never a cause to worry, because, sooner or later, a show will come along that restores your faith in theatre that reminds you why you love it. Then along comes that even rarer show that enhances your passion, your love, that celebrates acting, theatre and the whole damn show. Such a night is spent in the company of the legendary Sir Ian McKellen, who is celebrating his 80th birthday by performing his solo show in eighty venues throughout the country that he has a connection with. Few actors can hold an audience in the palm of his hand, few can engage an audience so vividly, few are playful, poignant, and passionate, a little bit naughty, erudite and so damn talented. But the You in the title of the show is the important person, he embraces us all, and embraces theatre in a warm hug of experience and joy.
Beginning with Lord of the Rings, Sir Ian instantly tackles the role younger audience members mainly know him for, relishing every moment, and iconic props quickly create a thrill in the house! Taking us through his story, the night inevitably focuses on theatre, and he celebrates amateur theatre, where he began and his sister Jean performed in local productions, in fact the proceeds of the Colchester shows are going to the Headgate Theatre, the home of amateur theatre here, and Mercury Make It, the youth theatre. He is not alone on stage, we are joined by the spirits of his family, teachers, mentors, actors and characters as he regales us with stories, poetry and speeches- his Widow Twankey is gorgeous! We also celebrate his activism, his belief in equality and gay rights, how far we have come and how we need to avoid being complacent.
The second half is given over to Shakespeare, and begins with Jaques’s “All The World’s A Stage” speech, the seven ages of man. The half is beautifully and cleverly constructed along those lines as Sir Ian, with the audience’s help in remembering all of the plays, gives us the lover, (Romeo), the soldier, the justice, (Justice Swallow), and, in the moving closing minutes, the older age, not quite oblivion, but if you’re not moved by Prospero’s farewell speech, you have a heart of stone. (“We are such stuff that dreams are made on… and our little lives are rounded by a sleep.”)
Seamlessly directed by long time collaborator Sean Mathias, It’s a big, warm, loving embrace of theatre and acting by an inspirational man. The fact that he is raising thousands upon thousands of pounds for each theatre and their local communities speaks volumes of the measure of the man. Perhaps the term legendary is overused these days. Perhaps the term inspirational is. Not here. Thank you Sir Ian, and if you decide to repeat this feat for your 90th, I intend to be there!