By Neil ‘Nello’ Durham
WORTH A LOOK?: ***1/2
WHEN?: Saturday 15 October, runs to 26 November 2022 RUNTIME: 140 minutes (including a 20-minute interval)
We’re at the opening night of the 1st new West End theatre in 50 years to see the transfer of this New Vic Theatre production about the life of Neil Baldwin, ground covered in the BAFTA-winning film of the same name starring Toby Jones.
- Read on for reasons including how this is a great venue configured brilliantly here into an intimate space
@sohoplace is a flexible space offering a 602-seat auditorium which is purpose built and opening in-the-round for this production.
This means that no member of the audience is more than 6 rows back from the stage and this makes it so much easier for the cast to establish a rapport with the sold-out crowd.
This is key for this production directed by Theresa Heskins (Tom, Dick and Harry, Alexandra Palace Theatre) and cast member Jerone Marsh-Reid does indeed strike up a conversation with us before the action begins as the ensemble arrives onstage from 4 different entrances to make us feel that they are very much a part of us.
Marvellous is the story of a man diagnosed in less enlightened times in the 50s with a learning disability requiring speech therapy who led a quite extraordinary life befriending the great and the good while working as a clown nicknamed ‘Nello’ and even a kitman for Stoke City FC.
His philosophy was to both be happy and to make those in his orbit feel happy and here the ‘real Neil’ is played by Michael Hugo who we also saw in Heskins’ fine Tom, Dick and Harry this summer. Hugo is so exceptionally convincing in this that we had to check our programme from the previous show to be sure it was him because he is so different here.
Hugo’s ‘real Neil’ is sitting in the audience when the action starts and begins to commentate on how the ensemble, who each play many different characters in the show, are telling what is, after all, his life story.
Hugo is so adept at this that we think most of the audience thought that he was indeed the ‘real Neil’ although a quick look at the online programme establishes that this isn’t in fact the case.
What follows is a lively and imaginative retelling of a compelling tale innovatively directed that we felt was just a little too unsettling to really captivate us.
Impersonating a vicar and acting as an impromptu meet and greeter to new students at Keele University may have seemed charming in 1960 but can’t help but ring a few alarm bells more than 60 years later however kind the intentions may have been.
Nevertheless there’s real heart in the storytelling and relying on the kindness of strangers does offer hope with some of the tales (real life footballing greats Lou Macari and Neville Southall benefit) while others are quite clearly taking advantage of a vulnerable individual.
Pictured far above is the show’s funniest scene, a cookery escapade between Baldwin and his mother, a movingly warm Suzanne Ahmet, and there’s a real Morecambe and Wise slapstick to the humour which will have multi-generational appeal.
The ensemble was game and special mention to Gareth Cassidy who we especially enjoyed in a variety of comedy roles not least at 1 point as Baldwin’s pet monkey.
Nica Burns, Nimax Theatre’s chief executive officer, thanks the audience as we leave for being the 1st to enjoy @sohoplace and we wouldn’t hesitate to return because it’s a venue seemingly designed with the audience’s enjoyment at the forefront of its mind rather than invester profit.
And, while there’s definitely an audience for the light-hearted optimism of Marvellous, we felt the subjects it raises perhaps deserved a more serious examination.
Doubtless there will be far more satisfying shows to marvel at in this fine setting however in the years to come.
- Main picture via Facebook courtesy Nimax Theatres Tickets
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