Neil Dowden in the West End
27 October 2022
@sohoplace is the first new, purpose-built theatre in the West End for almost 50 years (since the opening in 1973 of New London Theatre – now Gillian Lynne Theatre). It is part of the redevelopment near Tottenham Court Road station after the completion of the Elizabeth Line. 12 years in the making, this project of founder/producer Nica Burns (co-owner of Nimax Theatres) has finally reached completion as a gleaming glass, steel, and marble building. In its three-tiered, 600-seat-capacity, flexible auditorium the audience is always close to the action – especially for the opening production which is in-the-round.
Michael Hugo as Real Neil with the company. Photo credit: Craig Sugden.
Marvellous is based on the life of Neil Baldwin as recounted in the 2014 BAFTA-winning TV drama (starring Toby Jones) and follow-up bestselling book which he wrote with his friend Malcolm Clarke. This entertaining stage adaptation, which premiered in the spring at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme in the Potteries, is by the artistic director Theresa Heskins with the collaboration of Baldwin himself.
Baldwin was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1946 with a learning disability (he was regarded as “mentally handicapped” back then) and needed speech therapy as a young child, but this did not hold him back from leading a fulfilling life. He hitchhiked all over the country, worked as Nello the Clown in a touring circus, started going to Keele University as an unofficial meeter-and-greeter in 1960, and became kit-man and mascot for Stoke City in the 1990s. He has also befriended many famous people including members of the royal family, an archbishop of Canterbury, senior politicians, and footballers, whose autographs he has collected, as well as appearing on the Queen’s honours list.
The message of Marvellous is clearly to follow your dreams like Baldwin. The show wears its heart on its sleeve but like its protagonist it is disarmingly optimistic. Although it teeters on the edge of sentimentality, it’s difficult to resist an exuberant, feel-good show that accentuates the positive with such imaginative stagecraft. It tends to downplay the challenges and prejudices that Baldwin would have encountered, though it does touch briefly on the abuse he suffered at school and the football ground, as well as his exploitation in the circus. There is also a brief discussion about when banter slides into bullying and whether people are laughing with or at him – but the always upbeat Baldwin says he doesn’t mind as long as he brings them fun.
Suzanne Ahmet and Michael Hugo. Photo credit: Craig Sugden.
The most moving part of the show is when Baldwin’s elderly mother Mary, aware that her health may fail, persuades him to move out to a house just down the street so that he can start to learn to live more independently as he will need to when she’s gone.
It is a brilliant idea to have several actors (all dressed similarly in knitted green tank tops, whites shirts, and ties) playing Baldwin in different phases of his story. There is a comical start with each of them saying “I’m Neil Baldwin!” in the style of “I’m Spartacus!”/“I’m Brian!” before the “Real Neil” stands up from a seat in the stalls and takes over the direction of the show – like Baldwin taking control of the narrative of his life. The meta-theatrical framing, with the actors playing “themselves” as well as roles in the play, leads to a lot of engagement with the audience.
Director Heskins has created a lively, free-flowing show, where the cast come on stage from four corners and sit at the side when not involved in the action. At times it is like organized chaos, with panto-like slapstick such as a joke umbrella squirting water over the front rows of the audience and ingredients scattered all over the stage when Baldwin’s mother tries to teach him how to cook. (The subsequent clear-up is done balletically with mops to the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”: movement director Beverley Norris-Edmunds.). There is even a custard pie pushed in the face, wholly appropriate for a show about a former clown.
Over the stage is suspended brightly coloured individual letters spelling ‘MARVELLOUS’ illuminated with light bulbs (designer Lis Evans). The stage itself is kept bare for most of the time except when furniture and props are needed for a particular scene (including those produced by Real Neil out of the “bag for life” that he carries around).
The neurodiverse cast perform with uninhibited energy. As Real Neil Michael Hugo is superb, capturing some of Baldwin’s way of speaking and physical mannerisms, but more importantly conveying his unaffected enthusiasm and quirky sense of humour. Everyone else multi-roles effectively, including Suzanne Ahmet as the concerned Mary who encourages her son to branch out, Gareth Cassidy hilariously taking on a multitude of accents (not to mention aping Baldwin’s chimpanzee), and Jerone Marsh-Reid athletically executing pratfalls. At the end, it turns out the really real Neil Baldwin – wearing his British Empire Medal – is in attendance and not surprisingly he receives a huge round of applause.
It may seem a bit odd that #sohoplace has opened with a transfer when the intention is to produce plays in-house, but presumably the focus has been on getting the building ready – and Marvellous is a crowd-pleasing debut. However, with new productions of As You Like It (directed by Josie Rourke) and Medea (starring Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels, directed by Dominic Cooke) now scheduled, there is much to look forward to at the West End’s newest theatrical asset.