Review: Sir Ian McKellen in Ian McKellen On Stage With Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others…And You!, Grand Opera House, York, Monday *****

THERE is a moment in this delightful variation on An Evening With...format when Sir Ian McKellen impersonates how someone typically plays an 80 year old on stage. Doddery, with an (imaginary) stick, painfully slow.

“I did it long before Julie Walters,” he says, as he carries a cup in the unsteady manner of Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques.

Sir Ian is 80, anything but doddery, and this is his birthday tour, when he is playing 80 locations nationwide, some he has never played previously, such as the Grand Opera House on Monday.

A three-month run in the West End has been newly added, and on this evidence he will be just as sprightly, physically impactful and sharp witted on the hoof at the end.

Sir Ian is on stage from 7.35pm to 10.35pm, save for a 25-minute interval, and he ends up in a box, not as a comment on time running out, but because he is referring back to an earlier moment when he recalled being advised by director Sean Mathias that opening the show emerging from a box would make the audience laugh.

It does, but instead as his final act of a wonderfully entertaining, uplifting, educative, inspirational insight into his roots, his life and acting times.

He opens by reciting a Gandalf scene from Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings, the launchpad for a series of anecdotes and an invitation to a young woman from the audience to indulge in some swordplay with him with Gandalf’s sword from the Peter Jackson films he graced.

The sword is the first of myriad props or prompts for stories that he pulls out of a box, in the manner of a magician, recalling the days when actors would travel with such boxes.

The stage is covered in an oval of carpets, evoking the sense that, despite the presence of more than 1,000 people, he is inviting you into his sitting room/study to reminisce. All that's missing is the toasted crumpets.

Charming, witty, mischievous, elegant in his flowing black and blue colour scheme, McKellen recounts his path from Bolton to Cambridge University to the National Theatre and onwards, anecdotes interweaving with performances of poems and passages from plays.

Gradually the stage fills with items, Gandalf’s hat and books, and with voices too, impersonations of Gielgud, Olivier and Ivor Novello, stories of Derek Jacobi and Irene Worth; re-playing his Old Vic turn as Widow Twankey in pantomime, an art-form he loves for its uniquely British characteristics.

He applies politics with a light touch: brief references to Donald J and Brexit, rather more on Section 28 and coming out at 48.

His love of theatre and theatres is paramount – he had taken time to familiarise himself with the Grand Opera House before the show – and much of the second half is given over to a guided tour to all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays.

Opening with Jacques’s Seven Ages Of Man from As You Like It, he enacts favourite speeches from Hamlet, Macbeth, both Romeo and Juliet, with accompanying memoirs and invariably humorous thoughts. Picking up his copy of Troilus & Cressida, he decides he has nothing to say about this lesser work, once more to much laughter.

He would still love to play Antonio, one of two gay Antonios in Shakespeare’s plays, in The Merchant Of Venice, and always alive to asking the audience questions and inviting responses too, he challenges us to name the two plays that feature a dog. How he loves recalling a wag shouting out “Out, out damned Spot” (from Macbeth) at an earlier show.

He talks of how luck had played its part in his career, from schooldays onwards, but those feeling luckiest tonight are holding a ticket for this sold-out show: a five-star night that your reviewer will confidently say will not be surpassed this year. Many happy returns, Sir Ian.

Charles Hutchinson