Marking an 80th birthday is usually a quaint affair – a plush sit-down meal, maybe a big family photo. Not so for Ian McKellen, who since the start of the year has been touring venues large and small with his one man show – loosely titled Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and You – raising money for theatres, schemes and communities as he goes. It displays the sort of utterly selfless benevolence that makes McKellen one of the greatest figures in the theatre community, and the show now settles down for an 80-performance run in the West End.
The epic gesture of charitable goodwill is helped by the fact that McKellen delivers an absolute corker of a show, clocking in at over two and a half hours but easily capable of being twice as long without a grumble. The near-constant barrage of anecdote, witticism and jokey aside sidles through McKellen's life, from his upbringing in Bolton, his first experiences working in cities like Coventry or Stratford, on tour in Edward II or on the far side of the world up mountains in New Zealand.
Using only a napkin and a shopping bag, McKellen relives his bawdy panto experience as Widow Twanky in an ad-hoc festive lark. Moments later he's holding us in the palm of his hand reciting the story of Gus the Theatre Cat from T S Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (the actor is set to play the part in the upcoming musical film).
While the first act is a loose yet riveting walk through McKellen's life and career, the second sees the actor lug out a wad of Shakespeare plays, inviting the audience to try and name them all. With each he delivers a rumination, comment or recollection – except Troilus and Cressida: "I have nothing to say about Troilus and Cressida."
The most important component of McKellen's performance isn't the Tolkein or the Shakespeare, it's the you – the audience. He has an effortless ability to captivate all four tiers of the Harold Pinter simultaneously – at one point he gestures to the dress circle – "it was while watching Ivor Novello in that seat there", he says, "that I had my first erection". Stand-up comedy's loss is the theatre world's gain.
But with one hand comes with comedy and with the other comes pathos – McKellen ruefully mourns the loss of three beautiful theatres in Bolton (two of them designed by the great Frank Matcham) and reads with fire Sir Thomas More's pertinent "Grant Them Removed" speech.
It's a night unlike any other you'll get in the West End, and without bells, whistles or tricks, an embarrassment of riches. McKellen is one of a kind and a gift to our performing industry – only a fool of a Took would miss this gem of an evening.