He has played a wizard, a supervillain and the great Shakespearean leads – twice starring as Hamlet, 50 years apart – but Sir Ian McKellen has declared himself ready for another challenge in his ninth decade: a stage musical.
Talking to Mishal Husain on Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, the actor said he had never had a list of parts he wanted to play but he was still working his way through different types of theatre production. “There are a few left – one would be the musical,” he explained. But can he sing, asked Husain. “In the bath, in the shower, in private,” he replied. “I have sung occasionally – I did a pantomime at the Old Vic a few years back.” In that 2004 production of Aladdin he played Widow Twankey and sang “in a fashion” he added. A full-blown musical would be something else. “I can hold a tune but I’m not a proper singer,” he reflected. “I’m available but incompetent.”
The star, who turns 83 this year, is no stranger to on-screen musicals – he played Cogsworth, the major-domo who is transformed into an enchanted clock, in Disney’s 2017 film Beauty and the Beast and he played Gus the theatre cat in the 2019 film of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage hit Cats.
McKellen is about to play a sleuth for the first time – and for one show only – in a fundraising production at the Park theatre in north London. He is one of the surprise guest stars taking on the role of an investigator in a murder mystery spoof. Part of the fun of Whodunnit (Unrehearsed) 2 – the return of a format first used at the Park in 2019 – is that the actor playing the detective each night has not read the script in advance and is fed their lines through an earpiece.
Early in his career, McKellen appeared in two Agatha Christie plays at the Belgrade theatre in Coventry – but as a victim and a butler rather than a detective. The actor said it was a playful if disquieting prospect to be cast as an inspector without any rehearsal and without having seen the script. “I don’t feel I’ve got much to prove in my career any more,” he added. “Why not just do the things I enjoy doing?”
The Park theatre has assembled an all-star lineup for the show, with one-off appearances as the detective to come from Dame Emma Thompson, Gillian Anderson, Clarke Peters and Suranne Jones. McKellen had his own casting suggestion: Sue Gray, the veteran civil servant conducting the inquiry into Downing Street parties. “I wonder if Sue Gray is going to be free by the time the show opens. She might be a very good solver of problems,” he said with a chuckle.