Ian McKellen is an icon, and he knows it. Who else would decide to stage their own autobiography for their 80th birthday? And then set off on tour around the country’s theatres great and small, raising money for arts charities along the way?
He’s already been to 86 theatres and raised about £3 million for the venues he’s visited, letting them decide how to spend the revenue. Now he’s in the West End for 80 more dates – and clearly loving it. There’s a big grin on his face for most of the performance, as if he can’t quite believe how lucky he’s been.
On stage with an armchair and trunk from which he plucks props to match the skit, he ambles through his life and career: his first experiences of theatre, his time at Cambridge, his years in rep, his Hollywood renaissance, his activism.
There are also re-enactments: a booming opener sees him summon the spirit of Gandalf once again, while moments later he’s Widow Twankey with a bag full of props (including, naturally, a copy of The Stage) and a mouthful of innuendo.
Most of the anecdotes are polished from long use, but there’s an overall spontaneity to the show (directed by longtime collaborator Sean Mathias) that keeps it thundering along; you’re never quite certain what McKellen’s going to pull out of his box of tricks next.
There’s not even the tiniest bit of bashfulness in the way he celebrates his own achievements. “Put your hand up if you’re from New Zealand,” he says as a few hands shoot up. “If you’ve ever been to New Zealand …” – a few more – “… Keep them up if you’ve ever been on a stamp in New Zealand.” He laughs, and why not? He just embraces the joy and the absurdity of it all.
One of the best moments is seeing McKellen play an 80-year-old, or at least adopt the way he played one 50 years ago: bent double, doddering and rasping. Contrast that with the way he runs around the stage and jumps from one scene or character or story to the next; it’s pretty extraordinary.
The second half is all Shakespeare, which feels a bit like being told to eat our greens after a massive piece of chocolate cake but, to be fair, they are very delicious and well-cooked greens. Audience members are asked to shout out titles of Shakespeare plays, and each one prompts a reminiscence or a rumination or a fantastically delivered speech.
The performance, and the tour, is a wonderful act of generosity. And through all the stories of acting and activism, what emerges most poignantly is his deep devotion to theatre, whether it’s fun-loving amateurs, the long-dead days of weekly rep or the storied stages of the West End.