Reviews Roundup: Ian McKellen in Player Kings

Noël Coward Theatre

Ian McKellen and Toheeb Jimoh in Player kings. Photo: Manuel Harlan

With Sir Ian McKellen playing Falstaff in a new play directed by Robert Icke and adapted from William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts One and Two, the critics expected the theatrical event of the year. They got it.  4 and 3 star reviews told us that, even if they didn’t think it was a production to go down in theatrical history, they were not disappointed.  They loved Sir Ian (although some seemed more impressed that he was doing it at all at his age), the rest of the top class cast, and the director. Most of the critics thought the second half didn’t match the first in this nearly four-hour marathon.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

The Telegraph‘s Dominic Cavendish (4 ★) summed up: ‘This account may not be one for the annals, but we surely exit eternally grateful that McKellen added the challenge to his bucket-list; a must-witness.’ He said, ‘an unmistakable aura of elegy and mortality hangs over his largely delightful and affecting turn as old Jack Falstaff.’ As for the direction, ‘Though it can incline to the briskly efficient, Icke’s intelligent and beautifully bookended.’

Sam Marlowe in The Stage (4 ★) said ‘McKellen’s rendition of this familiar role feels astonishingly fresh and rewarding…a performance that is, in itself, crammed with observations about some traditional traits of the national character, many of which are not pretty.’ She wrote perceptively about the way Icke’s ‘thoughtful, needling and often very entertaining’ production is ‘skewering of the mythology of Englishness and patriotism, a shrewd overview of the current state of the nation and a piece of premium classical theatre’. It was, she said, ‘A play for today; a performance to remember.’ Like other critics, she felt ‘The pacy first half gives way to a certain amount of languor in the second.’
Nick Curtis in The Standard (4 ★) was possibly the most enthusiastic of all about Sir Ian’s performance, saying he ‘attacks the part ..with relish and superb comic timing…it’s a remarkable feat of skill, swagger and stamina for an 84-year-old…His rheumy, phlegmy Falstaff demands time and attention.’ Fiona Mountford at the i  (4 ★) noted, ‘Sir Ian’s Falstaff, mighty of belly and bragging and snuffling like a pig, has a nasty edge.’

For Sarah Hemming of the Financial Times (4★) ‘McKellen, nearly 85, is magnificent. It’s a performance that confirms once again the depth, breadth and acuity of this great actor’s skill.’ She continued: ‘It’s a brilliant portrayal: magnetic, constantly shifting, often funny, yet fundamentally sad.’ She liked the production: ‘Icke drives through his staging a febrile uncertainty and sense of transience.’ Despite her high rating, she felt ‘The second half is choppy and loses momentum, and some of the comic warmth goes missing.’ However, she ended, ‘at the heart of the show sits McKellen’s unforgettable portrayal of a big player drinking in the last-chance saloon — a Falstaff for our times.’

‘It didn’t feel like nigh on four hours’ for Susannah Clapp in The Observer (4★). For her both Falstaff and Hal are outstanding: McKellen is ‘a mighty actor at the peak of his power’ and ‘Toheeb Jimoh is a completely radiant presence’.

It wasn’t too long for Adam Bloodworth at CityAM (4★) either, who said it  ‘goes in a flash, feeling constantly pacey and surprising.’ In line with his peers, he said: ‘you simply can’t take your eyes off of magnetic McKellen, leering around the stage.’

Andrzej Lukowski at Time Out (4 ★) called Sir Ian ‘excellent as a Falstaff whose essential failure in life obviously weighs heavily on him. It’s a funny role, and McKellen gets some big laughs.’ He gave the production high praise: ‘it’s a pretty much faultless turn from the director, a reminder of his uncanny ability to get to the psychological heart of a classic text.’ He continued: ‘it’s a terrific take on one of the greatest plays ever written (plus its decent straight-to-DVD sequel) blessed by two tremendous – and tremendously original – lead performances.’ Like others, he enthused about all the actors: ‘a supporting cast to die for.’

Dominic Maxwell in The Sunday Times (4 ★) observed: ‘McKellen has a unique capacity to play it big and hardly appear to be acting at all.’ He described Toheeb Jimoh as a ‘sensation-in-waiting’.

The critics all had good words for the rest of the cast. Alex Wood at Whats On Stage (3★) , while piling on the bouquets for the lead- ‘McKellen delivers one of the best stage performances of the year’- added ‘Toheeb Jimoh…is an enthralling presence.’ His main reservation was that ‘it all comes apart in a staid second half (shorter in length yet feeling longer), where both Shakespeare’s text and Icke’s choices feel much more lacklustre and uninspired…There may be mighty players, but this occasionally feels like less than the sum of its parts.’

The Guardian‘s Arifa Akbar (3★) agreed: ‘There is a shift in tone between two parts: the first is staged as a gothic thriller, of sorts, with long shadows and suspense. The shorter latter half feels oddly anti-climatic.’ But she praised ‘McKellen’s is a richly complex portrayal’ and liked the ‘slick modern dress production with a magnificent brick-backed set designed by Hildegard Bechtler’.

Clive Davis in The Times (3★) also saw it as a play of two halves: ‘It’s in the first half of the evening, a full two hours long, that the drama is at its sharpest. After the interval, there’s a sense of events being allowed to pile up almost at random.’ However he did like Sir Ian’s voice which ‘still paints in rich colours’ and he too was impressed by the supporting actors: ‘Toheeb Jimoh, lean and athletic, makes a likeable prince. Richard Coyle’s King Henry possesses suitable gravitas.’

Tim Bano in The Independent (3★) was the least enthusiastic. He had mixed feelings about Sir Ian’s performance: ‘He’…soaks up all the attention when he’s on stage; basically, he’s as brilliant as ever. But he also feels like a cartoon splotch on an otherwise realist production. McKellen’s approach is outsized and incongruous, especially in those early scenes when he’s alongside Toheeb Jimoh’s joyous Prince Hal.’ And he certainly wasn’t keen on the production: ‘the whole thing tips into naffnes… McKellen meets Icke could have been magic. In spurts, to be fair, it is. But as Falstaff toddles off into the wings, the overriding sensation is one of trying to convince yourself you’re not disappointed.’

Player Kings continues at the Noel Coward Theatre until 22 June 2024, then touring. For details and tickets, go to

Average Critic Rating 3.7★

Value Rating 42 (Value rating is the Average Critic Rating divided by the typical ticket price. In theory, this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60. This rating is based on opening night prices- theatres may raise or lower prices during the run.)

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