Photo: Manuel Harlan

Given that Sir Ian McKellen is one of the great Shakespearean actors, it’s perhaps surprising that he’s never taken on the role of Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s best-loved anti-heroes. Until now, that is: in Player Kings, Robert Icke’s modern-dress adaptation of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, we see Sir Ian – in an amusingly silly fat suit – take on the comic relief role. He’s an entertaining counterfoil to the more serious Prince Hal, played brilliantly by the excellent Toheeb Jimoh.

Player Kings is two plays in one and, while some editing has taken place, it’s still a lengthy commitment – clocking in at close to four hours, this is probably not one for casual theatregoers. It is, of course, a history play – a story like this may have limited appeal. It also struggles a little with a fundamental issue with the source material, in that Part 1 is very much more engaging than Part 2. The drama and comedy of the action before the interval isn’t matched by the slightly meandering narrative of the second act.

With performances this strong, though, it still makes for an entertaining evening. Our two leads are both excellent – Sir Ian bellows and splutters and drinks through his performance, in a wonderful turn as one of Shakespeare’s most famous creations. Toheeb Jimoh is a complete contrast – initially quite playful and lighthearted, we see Hal’s demeanour change radically over the course of the evening, as he advances ever closer to royal duty – it’s a fascinating transformation to watch.

We don’t think Player Kings will be for everyone – even for the most ardent theatre fans, four hours is a long slog and, especially given the pace of the material drops significantly after the interval, it does start to feel like it’s dragging towards the end. But for the most part this is an entertaining show, and there’s some stellar acting to be seen – our two leads really deliver and there’s a strong supporting cast too. The play is currently in London’s West End, and will tour Bristol, Birmingham, Norwich and Newcastle later this summer.

GAY TIMES gives Player Kings – 3/5

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