Player Kings | Review, Noel Coward Theatre, London

I am not your typical Shakespeare buff. Yes, I enjoyed studying Macbeth and Othello at school, and I’ve seen a few Shakespeare productions over the years, but I certainly couldn’t say I know his work well. I tend to review modern plays and musicals, I enjoy TV sitcoms and blockbuster series… In fact I’m exactly the sort of audience that Player Kings hopes to attract with this cut-down and combined version of Henry IV parts one and two, adapted by Robert Icke, it stars Sir Ian McKellen, who needs no introduction, Toheeb Jimoh of Ted Lasso, and Richard Coyle from Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. The supporting cast is equally fabulous.

Right from the start, the play uses supertitles to announce where the action takes place, in a very televisual way, making sure the audience understands what’s happening. It’s not that anything is dumbed down – it isn’t – but as someone who didn’t know the play, I really appreciated the added context that these gave. 

After a grand opening scene, seeing the King crowned, we jump cut – the strategic use of a curtain reveal really making it feel like filmic cuts between scenes – a bawdy tavern in East cheap, London, where people are rocking out, having sex, a man on a leash has coke sniffed off his back, and they’re generally having a bloody good time! The music, the modern dress, and the rowdy scene immediately put me in mind of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (that I looove), and then Toheeb Jimoh as Prince Hal (Henry V to be) stumbles in wearing only a pair of boxers pulled down at the back, revealing his princely behind, before falling down drunk at the feet of Sir John Falstaff, played by a rather hairier than usual looking Sir Ian. I’m not gonna lie, if you enjoy seeing a beautiful man in the nude, this bit in itself is a pretty great reason to attend the play!

As we have come to expect from this giant of British theatre (and film), Ian McKellen’s Falstaff is a masterclass in performing. His blustering drunk is hilarious without being silly (for the most part) and his role as the misanthropic wannabe mentor to the young Prince is so entertaining as to almost steal the show. The scenes with McKellen and Jimoh are so much fun and their affection for each other as Falstaff and Hal is evident. Their on-stage chemistry is palpable and adds depth to their interactions.

McKellen’s role is not all laughs (although there are a lot) but also has a desperate and tragic side to it (is not a spoiler, it’s a 400 year old historical play). He played each aspect of the character beautifully, bringing a depth and dimension to the part that a lesser actor could so easily perform as a 2 dimensional drunken, opportunist, learing and slurring at every word. I found myself, at times, sympathising with the old geezer, who simply wanted a life of working ‘smarter not harder’, something many of us can relate to! He’s clearly not had an easy life, and even his good friend and confidante, the prince, delights in poking fun at him.

Jimoh, as the notorious Prince Hal, treads the fine line between seriousness and reckless abandon that the character calls for, beautifully. The joy he takes in his capers with best mate Poins (Daniel Rabin), is hilarious and infectious, and the gravity he brings to the more serious moments shows a maturity beyond his 27 years and a dedication to his craft that is unsurprising to anyone that has seen him as Sam Obisanya in Ted Lasso, a show that has brought so many exceedingly talented young actors into the spotlight.

Although I enjoyed Richard Coyle’s straight laced King Henry, I must admit that there were times during some of the lengthier political discussions in the first half that I found my attention wandering – no fault of the actors, but perhaps a challenge for a modern audience accustomed to a faster pace.

However, just when I was really struggling, along comes Sir Ian with a bit of Falstaff physical comedy, and it was off to war they go. The war scenes were very much crafted to engage a modern audience, and although only a brief part of the play, they were very entertaining (perked me right up), with cinematic music, smoke, great sound and lighting (Gareth Fry – Sound, Lee Fry – Lighting) and a good dose of guns and violence!

Kudos to writer/director Robert Icke for the wonderful moment when the curtain’s descent is used to comedic effect – he fully got me with this feint. I won’t reveal more as it’s a brilliant moment and I would not want to spoil it.

Honourable mentions must be made of Clare Perkins’ portrayal of Mistress Quickly, the East Cheap landlady who is hilarious both in her good natured and her more angry moments. Her character is so much fun and she brought a smile to my face throughout. 

Overall, Player Kings is a brilliant play and very entertaining indeed, with fabulous performances and some very witty writing (there’s a reason Shakespeare is no 1). Robert Icke’s adaptation is brilliant and cohesive, although I do think for modern audiences he could have been even more brutal with his cuts for the first half (the total running time is 3 hours 20 plus interval). However, if you enjoy innovative adaptations, are a fan of the bard, or are simply eager to witness a masterclass in acting from Sir Ian McKellen, Player Kings is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 22nd June and is not to be missed!

The production will visit Bristol Hippodrome (3 – 6 July 2024), Birmingham Alexandra (10 – 13 July 2024), and Newcastle Theatre Royal (24 – 27 July 2024). 

To book tickets visit

Words Nick Barr

You don't have permission to register