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Unforgettable Night Celebrates McKellen’s 80th

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Pupils and former pupils of Bolton School enjoyed an unforgettable night performing in front of some of the finest actors Britain has produced at a surprise celebration for Sir Ian McKellen’s 80th birthday. Here, former pupil and one of the stars of the show, Sam Warburton, takes up the story: 

“On Saturday 25th May, old boy Sir Ian McKellen turned 80. Sir Ian had spent the previous day in school, reconnecting with former classmates and performing his one-man show for current pupils in the Great Hall. What Sir Ian did not realise however, was that he would be returning to school that evening for a surprise birthday party organised by his long-time friend and professional partner, director Sean Mathias.

A small group of students and recent leavers were invited to perform at Sir Ian’s party, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Recent leavers travelled from across to the country to join Old Boy and actor Ralf Little in this performance, a tribute to Sir Ian which saw pupils and leavers reprise the very same roles which Sir Ian had once performed at school. 

Whilst we were rehearsing in the Riley Centre, we caught brief glimpses of Sir Ian’s guests arriving to the Arts Centre. Amongst the procession of household names who would comprise our audience for the evening were Sir Derek Jacobi, Richard Wilson, Janet Street-Porter and ‘M’ herself, Dame Judi Dench. 

These famous faces greeted us with a round of applause as we walked into the Arts Centre to perform. First up was Ralf, who spoke of Sir Ian’s enormous impact on the school before introducing Year 8 pupils who gave powerful readings from Tolkien and the ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech from As You Like It. Jude Ashcroft then burst into the hall as Malvolio, urging the A-list audience to cease their merriment – to rapturous applause.  

This was followed by an ensemble of Middle Schoolers and Sixth Formers who presented a scene from Macbeth, before recent leavers Alex O’Loughlin and Billy Morrison took on the roles of a young Prince Hal and the King he would grow up to be. O’Loughlin’s Prince Hal lamented the burden of kingship, whilst Morrison’s King Henry gave a fiery response to a mocking gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin. 

Year 8 returned bearing placards which catalogued scenes from the Stonewall Riots, the boys and Ralf with unbuttoned shirts to reveal ‘I am Gandalf and Magneto. Get over it!’ t-shirts beneath. This clearly moved the audience who applauded and cheered the boys as they arrived to the stage. Stonewall had been founded 30 years earlier, to the very day, in McKellen’s living room. Lewis Pierson, spoke lines about service from the As You Like it speech when the applause abated. Alumnus Charlie Derrar followed, with an equally moving speech from Sir Thomas More, focussing on timely issues such as tolerance and respect.

Recent leavers Mohammed Master and Adam Critchlow then reprised their roles as the wizard Prospero and his slave Caliban from the school’s 2018 production of The Tempest. The scene combined elements of physical comedy, dramatic confrontation and pathos and many guests went out of their way later to congratulate the two on their superb performance. 

To close our performance, Mohammed and Adam were joined on stage by fellow recent leavers James Stevens, Sammy Gatenby and myself. The five of us read extracts from Sir Ian’s teenage memoirs in which Sir Ian fondly remembered his school days and reflected on the transition from boyhood to manhood. We were met with a standing ovation whilst Sir Ian came up to shake our hands. It was difficult not to be overwhelmed by this emotional climax and many in the audience were in tears whilst pupils took their bow and made their way to the back of the hall where we were able to enjoy the rest of Sir Ian’s party. 

Watching the remainder of the performances, I was struck by just how much Sir Ian meant to his friends and colleagues. Tributes came pouring in from friends who could not make it, including Sir Elton John and Dame Maggie Smith. Sean Mathias closed the event with his own deeply moving tribute to Sir Ian. 

Following this, whilst pupils headed off, recent leavers remained. Sir Ian posed for photos and thanked each of us individually. Dame Judi spent some twenty minutes chatting to us, taking a genuine interest in our lives and applauding the bravery of pupils, particularly the Year 8’s, who had just performed in front of some of the most talented actors in British history. 

This was a magical, surreal night and I can confidently speak for all of the boys involved in saying that we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and will never forget this experience. Thanks must go to Mrs Firth and Miss Tunstall for supervising and supporting pupils throughout the evening, to Ralf for his calm leadership which quelled our nerves and most of all to Miss Lord who put the entire performance together and without whom, none of this would have been possible.”

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