Last Updated on 29th October 2022
Mark Ludmon reviews Marvellous, the story of Neil “Nello” Baldwin, which has transferred from the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme to the new @sohoplace theatre in London
@sohoplace theatre, London
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Marvellous, the stage adaptation of the real-life story of Neil “Nello” Baldwin, was a hit when it opened at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire. Baldwin, from neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent, is a local legend in the area after a colourful career that took him from being a self-appointed greeter of freshers at Keele University and a dogged autograph-hunter to a circus clown and a kit man for Stoke City football club. Refusing to be written off for having learning difficulties, he persevered through bloody-mindedness and not worrying what people thought of him. It is an inspiring story, which has previously been told in a film starring Toby Jones and in Baldwin’s own autobiography, but, rooted in Stoke, the show loses some of its resonance and meaning when transported to Soho.
With Baldwin’s love of clowning and fancy dress, the production relies on comedy that is unashamedly broad and slapstick, revelling in its anarchic theatricality. An excellent cast of seven actors share the storytelling, led by Michael Hugo in a strong performance as “the real Neil”. Suzanne Ahmet stands out as Neil’s mum while Gareth Cassidy impresses with his accents and impersonations. But this is an ensemble piece so it would be wrong not to also mention Shelley Atkinson, Alex Frost, Jerome Marsh-Reid and Daniel Murphy.
Directed by Theresa Heskins, with movement direction by Beverley Norris-Edmunds, the show rarely lets up its frantic fun-filled pace, amply filling the space in the round at the new @sohoplace theatre. Written by Baldwin with his life-long friend Malcolm Clarke, it is an uplifting fable about a working-class man who defies expectations to fulfil his dreams but, relocated from Stoke to Soho where the main character is not a local celebrity, the story does not stand up to too much scrutiny. Like Baldwin himself, the play actively and openly avoids probing any of the darker, more serious questions that the story might present. Is Neil being exploited by people taking advantage of his good-hearted willingness to work for low pay or even for free? Where is the line drawn between laughing at somebody because they’re funny and laughing at them because they’re different? By today’s standards, is it really that cute for someone to turn up on the doorstep of a celebrity’s home and demand an autograph as Neil does on occasion? And would anyone else get away with putting on a dog collar and pretending to be a vicar to gain access to people and places? But these reservations seem churlish and mean-spirited in the face of this deliberately light-hearted play’s depiction of Baldwin’s positivity, courage and determination to see the best in people.
Marvellous runs at @sohoplace theatre in London until 26 November 2022.
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