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Review: MARVELLOUS, @sohoplace

Theatrical version of Neil Baldwin's life has much that is uplifting but is let down by a tricksy approach to its staging

Marvellous MarvellousThere was always a danger of this happening with Marvellous and, churlish as I am in saying so, the twee and tricksy overpowers the charm and chummy in this stage version of the story of Neil Baldwin: clown, kit man and compadre of the great and good.

This spectacular new theatre (named, one feels possibly contingently, @sohoplace) is set out in the round, echoing how Neil would bring everyone into his orbit with his unabashed bonhomie and unwillingness to take no for an answer. It's an attitude adopted by a cast of actors who gamely take on multiple roles and smile along with us as they do so.

The narrative arc will be familiar to anyone who has seen the award-winning film of the same title or read the book or seen the press articles or even spoken to someone who has, as Neil, and everything about him, always leaves an impression.

We see Neil as a child in the Potteries, navigating the crude 1950s world of NHS therapy for those who were labeled with very different terms than today's neurodiverse and we also see him surviving in the cruel world of the school playground. With football-mad, churchgoing parents, fortnightly attendance at the Victoria Ground and weekly at chapel provides an alternative environment, one of mutual support, friendship and humour. Soon, Neil pitches up at Keele University and finds that his openness and decency is exactly what teenage students, away from home for the first time and a little scared, needed in order to settle in. He's been there 60 years and counting.

He spends time on the road as a clown, as a mascot-cum-kit supervisor at his beloved Stoke City and sets up his own football team, all the time making friends by force of will and his steadfast belief that there is absolutely no reason why he shouldn't. He also radiates kindness and gets much back in return, staying true to his credo that happiness is the only goal in life worth pursuing.

Mike Hugo conveys this beautifully as Neil himself, our guide and commentator on his own life's events, with a sardonic line here, a moment of sadness there and a naïf's occasional penetrating insight to show that Neil's psychology runs deeper than its outwardly childlike presentation. He gets tremendous support from the hardworking ensemble cast, in which Suzanne Ahmet shines as his saintly mother. Watch out too for a pin-sharp impersonation of an Irish TV star!

So why does this transfer from Newcastle-under-Lyme's New Vic Theatre earn my crabby first paragraph? It's mainly down to director-writer Theresa Heskins' decision to do away with the fourth wall more or less altogether. With lights up most of the time and audience members addressed directly, we get echoes of Neil's approach to life, but, over two hours and more, the conceit becomes irritating. All the "What me? Am I on now?" schtick doesn't work when we know everything in a big production like this has to be as slick as possible to work - indeed, the single time something did go a little awry and we had a genuine ad lib we also got the biggest laugh. And quite why the story warranted an interminable pantomime scene with its almost as lengthy meta-theatrical clean up was beyond me.

Perhaps that assessment of the storytelling mechanism sits in the space occupied by comedy which is always received subjectively and resists objective analysis. I guess that's another way of saying that one person's "Meh" is another person's "Marvellous".

Marvellous is at @sohoplace until 25 November

Photo Credit: Craig Sugden

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Photos: First Look at MARVELLOUS @sohoplace Photo
Marvellous, directed by Theresa Heskins runs @sohoplace, 4 Soho Place through 26 November 2022. Get a first look at photos here!

From This Author - Gary Naylor

Gary Naylor is chief London reviewer for BroadwayWorld ( and feels privileged to... (read more about this author)

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