Memories of the war are still vivid when a little lad in short trousers – hand in hand with his sister – crosses the Market Square to arrive at Wigan Little Theatre minutes before the curtain goes up.
They have come to see a play by Mr William Shakespeare.
The boy is enthralled. But even people good at predicting the future could not have estimated that that little lad would become one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of all time.
And little wonder there were thrills of anticipation when it was announced that our very own Ian McKellen was to return to his home town to present two shows at the self-same theatre.
“Ian McKellen’s coming home” whispered local admirers. Time for celebration. The great man had chosen to mark his 80th birthday by appearing in his favourite theatres up and down the land.
True, WLT rightly organised a ballot, knowing the demand for tickets would out strip supply. Right too. Over 600 folks were successful, forking out £25 a ticket. And well over £2,000 were disappointed.
So for the poor folks who had to stay at home, here’s a flavour of the night this world-famous star who lived on Parson’s Walk came back to the theatre were he first saw the Bard performed as a youngster...
Ian McKellen won’t be on stage for an hour, but the bar of WLT is packed to bursting. Programmes costing a tenner are being snapped up and if truth were told, we all know this was going to be a mighty and special performance.
The auditorium goes to black and then flooded with light, there’s just one prop on stage – a massive trunk emblazoned with the names of theatres.
Then the great man himself is on stage – reading from Lord of the Rings. And he’s brought Gandalf’s crumpled hat just for good measure.
Ian is making his own bit of history by returning to the theatre where, as a child, he first saw the Bard’s 12th Night.
He remembers it was in the summer of 1949. Time for prop No 2 – Gandalf’s amazing sword which glints in the spotlights, and here the star askes junior group member Jack Samson on stage to assist with the swashing and buckling.
The tone changes in an instant and Ian is talking about the enjoyment of hymn-singing at the long gone Hope Congregational Church. He talks of Wigan with warmth and affection in an
“I’m glad to be back” kind of way.
The whole evening deals with the different aspects of McKellen’s life. He laughs as he says that in truth he didn’t want to be an actor. Well he did...but only on the amateur stage. Much audience laughter.
The Wigan years ended when the lad went off to the posh and private Bolton School, and it was here he tasted life on stage and was delighted at seeing professional shows at Manchester Palace Theatre.
It was only when he saw a production of Peter Pan with a thousand stars on a backdrop did he say: “By heck I’m having some of that.” Something like that anyway.
Those star-struck moments were his introduction to the Never Never Land that is the theatre.
The audience remains mesmerised throughout. Not wanting to miss a word about the theatrical birth of a young man. Later this month he celebrates his 80th birthday.
One of the funniest highlights of this wonderful show is when the man himself tells of the delight of playing pantomime dame. It was an ambition achieved with relish.
He flourishes a headscarf and with a grimace and a funny walk, he’s a brilliant Widow Twankey, admonishing those who read too much into the rude words.
And in true panto style, he flings not only Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls into the auditorium, but also a variety of fruit.
As the evening progresses, there’s the realisation that although there’s only one man on stage, there are in fact, dozens as the star slips into different characters with smooth ease.
He let’s us into a secret – a hot piece of news – that he’s playing in a new film of Cats, out at the end of the year.
After the interval, the tone changes as Ian tells of the days when he came out as gay. And there’s laughter when he says he was afraid of telling an old relatives who responded: “Oh Ian, we all knew that 30 years ago.” Generous audience reaction here.
As we all expected, a big chunk of this superb one-nightery with a theatrical genius is devoted to his love of Shakespeare, and what a brilliant idea that members of the audience should call out names of plays and then Ian winds little stories around each and every one. It’s very clever.
The truth is that we didn’t want this unique production to end. It was marvellous to watch WLT history unfolding before our very eyes.
And there was another laugh when the stage went to black and when the lights came back on, Our Ian was nowhere to be found. Where was he?
That’s right, he had folded himself up and was inside the trunk.