While we are used to seeing star names on tour, we need to look back towards Jack Lemmon and Michael Gambon in Veterans Day or even further to Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson heading a tour of Uncle Vanya, for a more stellar cast than in this version of Waiting for Godot.
In supporting roles we have Ronald Pickup (recently in Newcastle with Uncle Vanya) and Simon Callow (who headed the recent the tour of Equus) with stage and screen legends Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart leading the company. Both actors are familiar faces at the Theatre Royal having separately played Shakespeare to packed houses, but this time they are appearing together, so we have the force of the X-Men meeting Star Trek and Lord of the Rings (as well as Coronation Street) and therefore it is little wonder there are house full signs up for the week.
Newcastle is also the plays last week on tour before the company arrives in London, so the show should be about as ready as it will be for a West End opening in a few days time. This casting ensures the audience will be made up of a few people who have never set foot in a theatre before, there with one purpose, to see their screen heroes.
While it is always great to see people introduced to the theatre for the first time, I do wonder if Godot is the best production for them to cut their teeth on. I am sure many will be wondering about what has actually happened for a few days afterwards, as nothing really does happen and therefore question the benefit of going to the theatre. In this version we have director Sean Mathias getting the best from each of the performers on stage and a beautiful set of an old derelict theatre by Stephen Brimon Lewis. Basically Samuel Becketts’ play gives us two characters filling in time as they wait for the mysterious Godot to arrive. While they do so they squabble with each other and meet Pozzo (Simon Callow) and Lucky (Ronald Pickup) who just happen to be passing through. In the second half they just happen to pass through once again, but under more tragic circumstances.
The main characters of Vladimir(Patrick Stewart) and Estragon (Ian McKellan) are like two old music hall performers and in fact at the curtain call leave the stage in the manner of Flanagan and Allen’s Underneath the Arches. There are plenty of laughs along the way as the entire company make this a memorable theatre experience that lives up to the expectation this production has brought with it . But there is no doubting this is McKellan’s show. His stage presence and the experience of his craft make it impossible for you to take your eyes off him for a second. His fellow performers, Stewart, Callow and Pickup are brilliant stage actors in their own right and each gives a first rate performance, but McKellan is in a league of his own here and is the star of this revival.