Ian McKellen, Theatre by the Lake
When Ian McKellen comes to town the audience expects to be in for a good show. So much so that the ballots for Sir Ian’s tour of UK theatres was overrun in minutes and the lucky 400 audience members tonight were holding the hottest tickets around.
What one might not expect is 2 1/2 hours packed with theatricality when this mischievous chameleon takes the stage. Celebrating his 80th year, one feels age has only made this consummate performer more master of his craft, this evening a stand-alone play in itself; a humorous, poignant self portrait of an artist.
The first half chronicles McKellen’s journey from a young boy falling in love with the theatre, growing up on the boards of his home town in Bolton, to footlights at Cambridge and into taking steps into repertory theatre. The pace is phenomenal, McKellen’s timing is flawless and his energy fills the stage. He takes a tongue in cheek turn as a pantomime dame and segues seamlessly to hold a more serious note: his own regrets of spending too many years “in the closet” and later triumphantly leading campaigns for gay rights.
But not too much self indulgence. McKellen already knows he holds the audience in the palm of his hand. The second half includes a comprehensive actor’s guide to Shakespeare (with audience assistance). The man famed for wizardry wields words in a fabulous feat of memory (“how does he do it” – he snatches even our own musings to make the joke) and from parts deeply inhabited, each character thoroughly understood by this scholar of English.
It’s hard not to suspend one’s disbelief watching one octogenarian hold court on a main stage: one moment a sad conflicted Hamlet, the next wielding the wand of power against the dark lord as the wizard Gandalf, then self-reflective as Shakespeare’s autobiographical Prospero in the Tempest.
On a tour of the country entirely to the monetary benefit of the hosting theatres, McKellen endeared himself to the Cumbrian audience, serendipitously visiting on the Theatre’s twentieth birthday, “It’s a great joy to me, when I’m far away, to know there is this wonderful theatre in this wonderful place.”
Sir Ian, we do so agree…and no better 20th Birthday party for TBTL than a full house packed so tight with the rich history of theatre and one man’s extraordinary homage to the art form that captured his heart as a child. Fitting that this evening’s takings will benefit the Theatre’s work for young people (including a collection bucket enthusiastically swung by Sir Ian toward every single departing audience member – also a magical chance for each to spend a moment with the star). New artistic director Liz Stephenson might do well to watch the fortunes of this lad from Lancashire: he was born to act.