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Review: Player Kings (Noël Coward Theatre)

Review by Daz Gale



There are some pairings in theatre things that just make sense – Ian McKellen playing Falstaff is one of them as the legendary actor takes on the iconic Shakespeare character in Player Kings which has arrived in the West End as part of a mini UK tour. With expectations high, would this production be able to unite a divided kingdom to become King of this year’s Shakespeare’s plays?

Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Player Kings is described as a version of his most English plays and the greatest historical ones he wrote. It tells the story of Hal who wasn’t born with the intention of being King but now finds himself in direct succession to the throne. With war on the horizon and Hal frequenting the taverns of Eastcheap with characters his father doesn’t approve of, would he have what it takes to become the future King?


Robert Icke’s adaptation beautifully splices both parts of Henry IV together to create a show with two distinct acts which do feel markedly different to an extent, but keep the through narrative as the tone changes along with the staging. Initially a slow burn of a play, it may be a long slog to get through the 3 hours and 40 minutes but it manages to grip throughout so the time passes quicker than you would expect.

Icke’s direction expertly weaves the story together through some inspired and diverse choices. Be it the use of music, the unexpected bursts of energy and interpretations of Shakespeare’s texts or staging that can go from understated to loud and over-the-top in a mere moment, there is nothing dull about this adaptation in the slightest. Icke’s choices are bold at times, bringing something new to stories and characters many would already be familiar with. One particular sequence towards the end of act one as war breaks out had masterful choices in the direction, while the extremely contrasting and deeply humorous start to act two kept a tongue firmly in cheek.


Hildegard Bechtler’s design perfectly complements Icke’s direction – something that shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the history of their partnership, with Player Kings marking their tenth show together. Having a creative team so in tune with each other helps the execution of this adaptation soar, with Bechtler’s set design full of interesting reveals and the effortless ability to transform with a quick drawing of a curtain. Her costume design is also a thing of beauty with contemporary updates and some fabulous choices for Ian McKellen’s Falstaff.

The biggest selling point of Player Kings is, of course, Sir Ian McKellen. A true National treasure, he has proven himself to be one of the country’s finest actors for more than 60 years. Through a multitude of roles from wizards to Pantomime dames, it is his ability to perform Shakespeare that is spoken of time and time again. Indeed, it almost feels like a rite of passage for a theatre obsessive to see Ian McKellen do Shakespeare at some point in their life – it was certainly on my theatre bucket list as inexplicably I had missed all his previous works, and safe to say, this did not disappoint.


Words can never do justice for Ian McKellen’s ability as an actor, but when it comes to him playing Sir John Falstaff, it really is the role of a lifetime. Playing to McKellen’s strengths perfectly, he embodies the role with humour and flair. His comic timing is second to none with the most intuitive nature to the way he walks, the way he speaks and even the noises he makes throughout. The words masterclass and tour-de-force performance are used a lot these days but if ever they should be used, it is for Ian McKellen in this role. Charismatic, comedic, charming and conniving, he delights from start to finish in an exciting and note-perfect portrayal.

This isn’t just the Ian McKellen show though, with other cast members dominating the stage as the story plays out. Sharing the most stage time is Toheeb Jimoh as Prince Harry. From the unexpected and revealing nature (no spoilers here) of his first appearance, he gives a versatile, complex and urgent portrayal with his phenomenal stage presence ensuring the future King gives a commanding turn. In a performance that veers from cock-sure and confident to uncertain and self-doubt, Toheeb perfectly demonstrates the identity crisis and growth Prince harry goes from, and boasts an incredible dynamic in his scenes with Mckellen’s Falstaff – the pairs chemistry a joy to behold.


Richard Coyle delights in his sporadic appearances as King Henry IV with Joseph Mydell a highlight among the consistently strong cast as Lord Chief Justice. Clare Perkins is a standout as Mistress Quickly with her loud and larger-than-life performances a breath of fresh air in the moments where the play runs with its more serious themes. In an inspired touch, Henry Jenkinson appears throughout to provide music with a heavenly voice making him shine throughout his stage time.

It may not have generated as many headlines as another upcoming Shakespeare West End show, but Player Kings deserves to be talked about just as much. Robert icke brings something fresh to two of Shakespeare’s classics in an enthralling production full of excitement. Ian McKellen delivers a note-perfect wonderful performance as does Toheeb Jimoh in a show that has plenty to offer for both Shakespeare enthusiasts and those theatregoers who may not otherwise choose to see a Shakespeare play, such is the versatility and accessibility of this production. If this is the high quality that is being set by this year’s big Shakespeare West End plays, next month’s Romeo & Juliet has a tough act to follow.


Player Kings plays at the Noël Coward Theatre until 22nd June. It then heads to Bristol, Birmingham, Norwich and Newcastle. Tickets at


Photos by Manuel Harlan



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