Player Kings review – Noël Coward Theatre, London ★★★☆☆

Photo: Manuel Harlan

Robert Icke’s amalgamation of Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays is something of a conundrum; overlong, uneven and utterly unmissable. The latter element is driven by an incredible central performance by Ian McKellen as Falstaff, matching his reputation as the greatest living stage actor.

The modern dress Player Kings charts the rise of the young Prince Hal (the future Henry V) to the throne as much as it tracks Falstaff’s rise and fall in society – and in Hal’s eyes. And as the play progresses, it seems increasingly like a meditation on ageing too, a sense that is heightened by 84-year-old McKellen’s presence. This may be his final West End performance but you wouldn’t bet against him.

He adds depth and subtly to a character often played purely for laughs, based on his portly physical appearance. Not that McKellen doesn’t have that: fat-suited to furnish him with an impressive girth that gives an excuse for Falstaff’s wheezing and sucking of teeth as he lectures and leches, providing the impression of a generally unpleasant, unpalatable, disgusting individual – yet you can’t take your eyes off him.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

He’s backed by a strong performance by Toheeb Jimoh as the Young Prince Hal who speaks the language so fluidly that even the most Shakespeare-averse audience member would struggle to misconstrue his meaning.

The adaptation is very much a play of two halves (there, I said it), each tonally distinct, with Icke’s attempts to marry them not quite paying off. With much left on the cutting room floor, the production still runs to almost four hours – and it feels its length. It takes the breakout of war 90 minutes into Part 1 to spark a flagging first half back into life and, following on the heels of the explosive battle, Part 2 is one long meander to an ending.

Paradoxically, it feels full of filler while not providing enough space for character development. Richard Coyle has all the soundings of a king but is let down by the lack of opportunity to stretch himself or develop his character, much like Samuel Edward-Cook who brings to heat to Hotspur while only hinting at its reasons.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

Post-interval, you miss the exchanges between Hal and Falstaff and the urgency and tension of a war that is now just background colour for other characters. The payoff for your patience is a moment of extreme pathos at the conclusion. Falstaff, cast off by Hal, caught in a hazy spotlight as his peers recount his death – age, and abandonment, having caught up with him. “You’ll forget me when I’m gone,” Falstaff says, earlier in the play. If this is McKellen’s swansong, we’ll not forget him.

Player Kings is at the Noël Coward Theatre, London until 22 June, then touring to Bristol, Birmingham, Norwich and Newcastle