Player Kings

Let's be honest, Ian McKellen as Falstaff—that's all the publicity we need regarding this show. We shall start there. McKellen is fantastic; he commands the stage with just one cheeky smile or nuanced look to imply a little camp innuendo. As expected, he delivers a near-perfect performance. As Falstaff enters, he is heavily overweight with the use of a fat suit, and while McKellen plays this well, including sitting up and standing, he did appear quite nimble and light-footed. I would have liked to see a more grounded walk, though later in the text, there is a comment about him fleeing in such a way, and this could have influenced the director's choice.

As McKellen is such an icon, seeing him in this fat suit instantly feels wrong. To add to this, Hildegard Bechtler, as Set & Costume Designer, had him wearing his trousers at the waist, which for a play set in modern times, for a loutish character, looks awkward, as most men wear trousers under the ‘beer belly.’ Though as the play progresses and the character is raised, it makes perfect sense for him to dress properly, especially when in uniform and finery.

On the subject of set and costume, I felt some of the costumes looked new, where a little dirt or aging would have added to the overall feel of the performance. The set looks like walls of red brick with an open fireplace, often lit. Pulling a curtain across the stage from one side to the other was cleverly done to hide scene changes and transitions. The set really came to life with the lighting; Lee Curran, as Lighting Designer, did a fantastic job making the light seem both natural and interesting to look at, adding depth to the set. When the fire was lit, the tone was matched so well that for a moment, I thought they were being lit by the fire.

Having spoken about McKellen, I should say how great Toheeb Jimoh is. Jimoh plays Prince Harry marvellously. He plays the young prince with no responsibilities, doing reckless things and associating with the lower class so well that he fits in as one of them, but also when talking with his father, the King. We see his character develop throughout the show with many slight differences, creating a well-rounded and believable character.

Playing the other Harry, we have Samuel Edward-Cook as Hotspur. He has some beautiful moments throughout the show, especially towards the end, where we see his real character come through. There is a darker twist on this. Richard Coyle in the role of the King has such a range and tone of voice; the audience hangs on every word he says.

The play is an adaptation of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 by Robert Icke. As mentioned previously, it is set in modern times, with no specifics given on dates, just a few updated words, ideas, and costumes. The relationship between Harry and Falstaff is a peculiar one; to describe it for theatre fans, it feels more like Fagin to Oliver, rather than Artful Dodger to Oliver, which is how I had always thought of it.

As we see too often, there are attempts to somewhat shock the audience. Near the opening of the show, we see Harry running around mostly naked, showing his bum off; later, there is a kiss between Falstaff and a much younger cast member. Neither of these were shocking enough to move me, but they could potentially prevent some audience members from enjoying the show. The real shocks come with the gunfire and lighting effects in the second half.

Despite a running time of 3 hours and 40 minutes (including the interval), the show had me gripped and never looking at my watch. I would recommend pre-ordering interval refreshments, and depending on the theatre, booking seats with a little more legroom if needed. Queues for bars, bathrooms, and even fresh air were slow and lengthy.

This show was reviewed on the 12th April 2024 at the Noel Coward Theatre, London where it runs until the 22nd June 2024.  Tickets available here: Player Kings at Noël Coward Theatre (

Further touring locations can be found here: Player Kings | Starring Ian McKellen | Official Website | March 2024 ( 

Review written by Valentine Gale-Sides


Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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