Note: A belated review of the performance at the Bridge Theatre on Sunday 3rd February.
If you're lucky enough to have secured a ticket for this theatrical event, the first thing to do when you arrive is buy a programme. Not only will this go, along with all the profits, towards a worthy cause chosen by the venue (for me it was for Flute Theatre to undertake educational work with Southwark school children) but it contains a map. More vividly than the list of venues on the tour's website it shows the scale of what McKellen is doing. In this era of justifiable concern about accessibility, McKellen is making a remarkable practical commitment by playing venues like The Hafren in Newtown or the Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis - places, I suspect, that rarely see a theatre performer of such stature (it struck me as a rather sad, but unsurprising comment, on my current home town of Lincoln that its fine Theatre Royal has missed out).
The show itself is in two parts. In the first, longer, section, McKellen combines recitation (from Tolkien to D H Lawrence), anecdote and autobiography. In the second, we go on a whirlwind tour through the best bits (in McKellen's view) of Shakespeare. The first with its windows into vanished worlds - a time when Bolton had three theatres, a time when male couples could not openly show their affection for each other for fear of arrest - I found the more moving. McKellen's delivery of the Shakespeare is consistently magnificent - someone should be planning a production of As You Like It so he can cross Jaques off his list, and Shallow's recitation of the dead was haunting - but the framing device, which I thought required selective deafness on McKellen's part wears a little thin.
But, overall, this is a rare occasion to revel in simply watching and listening to a master. McKellen flitted between characters with remarkable dexterity - changing pose, expression, voice to suit. He made the distance from stage to Gallery 2 disappear (also a testament to how well the new theatre has been designed). But above all what was so spellbinding is his delivery of text - making it sing, soar, and then catch suddenly at the crucial word.
The evening also had something of that frisson that can attach to the older performer - partly because it is difficult to completely banish the inappropriate thought that one may not have so many more chances to see them display their craft. But it's also about their richness of experience, and the generous, unassuming way in which it is offered.
A few dates have not yet opened booking, including McKellen's return to the Edinburgh International Festival in August. This is certainly an unmissable gem for their theatre programme. Edinburgh readers should make a note now to book. Anyone else should queue for returns at whichever venue is nearest.