Most people celebrate their impending octogenarian status with a slice of cake and a rousing chorus of 'Happy Birthday'. Sir Ian McKellen goes for something for more audacious, a tour across the United Kingdom, taking in 80 venues from the grandest to the most intimate. And so he landed at a packed Oxford Playhouse for a two-night stint, many decades after his last appearance there.
Taking us through his life's story, the evening is a deeply emotional affair starting with perhaps the most famous moment of his most famous part: Gandalf taking on the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings. From here he springs back to a childhood love of theatre through to an early career in repertory theatre. There are occasional tangents, such as a spot of pantomime as he recreated his fabulous turn as Widow Twanky (which I was lucky enough to see when he performed it at The Old Vic). The show ends with McKellen taking us through the works of Shakespeare, picking up speeches and memories of each. All the emotion of the evening reached a crescendo and I found this quite moving, with my love of Shakespeare marrying with my immense appreciation for the figure in front of me.
There are few performers today who could undertake what McKellen has done with this show. It benefits greatly from the figure at its centre, thanks to his sharp, acidic wit and an ability to self-deprecate. The show is not complicated, McKellen preffering to engage with the audience, almost as if we are having a one-to-one chat with the actor. But it is one that perfectly reflects the actor, plus it gives fans exactly what they would want from the night.
What makes the night even more impressive is that, after his over two hour performance, McKellen stood in the foyer collecting money for the theatre itself. The event raised over £45,000 for supporting the development of future productions at the Playhouse, one of the many things that the Playhouse fundraises for. As he dots from venue to venue it's clear that this immensely talented individual will help regional theatre in a way that few others can. What a brilliant night, with a brilliant theatre figure.