Ian McKellen is to celebrate his 80th birthday next year by asking audience members to act alongside him as he goes on an 80-date live tour. He will visit some of the UK’s grandest theatres but also amateur groups, fringe venues, pub theatres, drama schools and small arts centres, many of which have a personal connection for the actor. “The show starts with Gandalf and will probably end with an invitation to act with me on stage,” says McKellen. “In between there will be anecdotes and acting.”
The tour begins in January with a two-night run at his local theatre, the Space, in east London. Later dates include Coventry’s Belgrade theatre, where he had his first professional job (“I stayed a year, on £8.50 a week”), Cambridge Arts theatre, where he acted as an undergraduate, and Wigan Little theatre, where he saw his first Shakespeare production as a child.
McKellen will also perform in many theatres for the first time and will tailor his material to each venue. He will visit Above the Stag in Lambeth, south-east London, because “I wanted to make my debut at London’s only LGBT+ theatre. I will include my memories of the first production of Martin Sherman’s sensational Bent, words from Armistead Maupin and a few surprising gay characters in Shakespeare.”
He will celebrate his birthday, 25 May, with a show in Bolton, where he grew up and “discovered in its three professional theatres, a passion for acting, which has never faded. In the town hall, where my father was borough engineer, I’ll feel at home and grateful for all that Bolton nurtured in me.”
McKellen will visit the Duke of York’s theatre in the West End, where he made his London debut in 1964 and recently returned to star in No Man’s Land, with Patrick Stewart, and King Lear, which closed earlier this month. He said: “It was a joy to return recently for 100 performances of King Lear – or rather 99 performances. We had to cancel one Saturday matinee after my left leg gave way while running to catch a train. Rather than send the audience home, I gave an impromptu solo show with the aid of a chair and a walking stick.”
The solo tour concludes at the National Theatre’s vast Olivier stage, where McKellen has previously starred in Coriolanus, The Real Inspector Hound and a brief solo show about Shakespeare. “Being alone on the Olivier stage is a challenge,” he recalled. During the second performance, my voice gave way, until restored by some voice exercises flat on my back. For my return … I will be upright and audible.”
Profits from the tour will benefit specific causes at each theatre, from technical improvements to community outreach programmes, talent development and, at Billingham’s Forum theatre, refurbishments to the bar, where McKellen suggests he’ll meet audiences after the show.