Player Kings starring Ian McKellen is one of the hottest West End shows of the summer

Ian McKellen in Player Kings, sitting on a chair, his chest and stomach fatter than usual, wearing a flat cap, yellow shirt and blue trousers, with red braces

Ian McKellen’s new play, a modern-day reworking of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, is not far short of four hours long, but that hasn’t stopped critics praising the veteran stage actor to the hilt.

Player Kings has been adapted and directed by Robert Icke, known for his updatings of Oresteia, Mary Stuart and 1984.

While ultimate gay icon – and former Middle-Earth wizard – Ian McKellen is no stranger to Shakespeare or the West End, this marks something of a departure for him he approaches his 85th birthday. And we, of course, have all the tea about this hot ticket performance.

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What is Player Kings about?

It merges two of Shakespeare’s historical plays, Henry IV Part One and Part Two, focusing on the relationship between Hal, the young prince who will go on to be Henry V, and his friend, the wayward John Falstaff.

The story sees the two navigate their friendship and the ongoing battle between Hal’s responsibilities to his country and carousing with Falstaff.

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The play’s synopsis says Hal’s father “longs for him to leave behind his friends in the taverns of Eastcheap, most notably the infamous John Falstaff” especially because “war is on the horizon”.

The enduring question is: “Will Hal ever come good?”

Who does Ian McKellen play?

X-Men, Lord of the Rings and God and Monsters star McKellen plays John Falstaff, a pivotal character.

Although McKellen has previously taken almost all of Shakespeare’s protagonists, he has always turned down Falstaff – until now.

“Actors who have taken on the role say it is verbally very challenging – it seems that the role was written for a particular actor and comedian in Shakespeare’s time, so it’s a bit like being given a script for Michael McIntyre,” McKellen told the BBC.

McKellen describes Falstaff as “the ultimate gangster” and almost turned down the role again until Icke “eventually persuaded” him otherwise.

He explained that Icke’s adaptation “turned Falstaff into a believable character rather than an exaggeration”.

What do the reviews say about Player Kings?

The play has had overwhelmingly positive feedback from critics and reviewers.

The majority of critics have given it at least three stars, with many giving it four.

While WhatsOnStage said it was a “dab attempt to truncate a pair of Shakespeare’s bulky history plays” but this has led to a few “shortcomings” that make “Icke’s choices feel much more lacklustre and uninspired”, McKellen has been praised in almost every review.

How much are tickets?

Player Kings is running at London’s Noël Coward Theatre, in Covent Garden, until 22 June. It will then transfer to Bristol, Birmingham, Norwich and Newcastle, ending on July 27.

London tickets range from £52.50 to £200 and are available to purchase here. A limited number of £30 tickets – a maximum of two per person – will go on sale at 10am each day for that day’s performance and there are also £30 for the under-30s, with ID required when attending the show.