He’s perhaps not an archetypal gangster, making a grand entrance, dressed in boxing silks, but he packs a punch as the nearest thing to judge and jury in provincial Naples.
The Syndicate had its premiere at the Chichester Festival Theatre, where I saw a preview, before it goes on a short tour ending in Milton Keynes on September 12.
McKellen is Don Antonio who sits as arbiter to various neighbourhood disputes and dispenses an often rough justice. The drama reaches an explosive climax when the Mafia boss clashes with a humble but honest baker who refuses to be drawn into the criminal underworld or a deadly confrontation with his hot-headed son.
The subject matter, at a time when there are those wanting to impose their own laws on parts of British communities, is likely to be contentious but there’s plenty of quips and an undercurrent of gallows humour to support a powerful performance by the steely-eyed laird.
The veteran actor gives a magnetic, and hugely-watchable, performance as the local Godfather, one minute feeling his age (a venerable 75 in this) with a rasping voice and poor health, and the next dispensing words of wisdom to placate warring friends and an anxious wife.
He’s ably supported by the charismatic Michael Pennington who plays the great man’s doctor and confidente.
The story is set in Don Antonio’s summer retreat and opens with an attention grabbing cacophony of noise from fireworks, a pistol and baying dogs.
The hounds, his master’s favourites, have attacked the old man’s glamorous wife, Donna Armida Barracano (a woefully under-used Cherie Lunghi), while two friends have shot at each other in a drunken tiff, and the neighbourhood is enjoying the friendly rivalry between three different fireworks’ manufacturers for a spectacular show.
On top of that Pennington’s anxious Doctor Fabio is keen to retire but soon learns that there is only one way to leave the job and lifestyle that he has enjoyed for 35 years under his master’s protection.
The don is a loving family man with a beautiful wife, a gorgeous and dutiful daughter and two sons who are all involved in the family business but, as unsavoury as you may find the premise of the story, it’s a cracking chance to watch two of the finest stage actors in modern British history – McKellen and Pennington - vie for attention in a story about honour and family.
There’s a powerful but brief cameo from Oliver Cotton as Arturo Santaniello, a man refusing to be drawn into the lifestyle, despite his errant son’s newfound connections with the Camorra.
The Syndicate comes to Milton Keynes Theatre from September 12-17. For tickets call the box office 0844 871 7652 or go online www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes