Born into a humble family in Newcastle-under-Lyme, 1946, Baldwin was soon diagnosed with a learning disability that manifested as a speech impediment, and he later left school aged 16. Against the gentle advice of his parents to get a back-room job and keep his head down, he reinvented himself through a series of wildly different, public-facing careers – without gaining qualifications or receiving requests to interview. He dabbled with becoming a vicar, joined the circus, became the much-loved kit man for Stoke City football club (after applying to be the club's manager) and spent decades as a helpful dogsbody at Keele University, for which he was eventually awarded an honorary degree.
Baldwin’s likeability and kind-faced brazenness has afforded him meetings with countless famous figures – from television personalities to members of the royal family – and in Newcastle-under-Lyme and neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent, he’s a local hero.
Marvellous @sohoplace. Michael Hugo (Real Neil), Jerone Marsh-Reid (Jerone), Suzanne Ahmet (Suzanne) & Charlie Bence (Charlie). Photo: Craig Sugden
So really, his extraordinary life story is ripe for the stage, and that’s where Theresa Heskins, artistic director of the New Vic Theatre in Staffordshire, has reimagined it. Sticking closely to the plot points of the Toby Jones-starring film, itself based on Baldwin’s autobiography of the same name, Heskins presents a non-linear Marvellous that compartmentalises Baldwin’s varying identities. It dissolves the boundaries between actors and audience, characters and their real-life namesakes, and playfully flits between past and present.
Six members of the neurodiverse cast introduce themselves as Neil Baldwin, before a seventh rises from the stalls claiming to be the real Neil Baldwin. Except, of course, he isn’t (but on press night, the real, real Neil Baldwin was sitting elsewhere in the auditorium). Real Neil (a quietly charismatic Michael Hugo) takes over the narrating, recounting formative moments from his life, while directing the others as his friends, family members, colleagues and antagonists.
It’s meta, with lots of breaking the fourth wall, appearances from stage management and Real Neil piping up to correct under-researched excerpts from his life. ‘Marvellous’ becomes his refrain, regardless of what life throws at him, and the story’s takeaway is that Baldwin’s profound ability to find happiness by making other people happy is the key to his success.
Marvellous @sohoplace. Michael Hugo (Real Neil) and company. Photo: Craig Sugden
The joy in Heskins' production is its ability to conjure magic at every turn, seemingly out of nothing. On a pared-down, in-the-round stage, a ‘bag for life’ proves itself a cousin of Mary Poppins’ carpet bag, containing an endless ream of props. But this naturalism frequently rubs shoulders with Epic theatre, like when two actors become a kitchen cupboard next to a physical washing-up bowl filled with water and crockery.
Honouring Baldwin’s stint with the circus, the multi-rolling cast execute gasp-worthy stunts that will leave you wondering how long it took to perfect falling into a wheelie bin at speed without head damage, or catching an apple on the tip of a knife.
Special mentions must go to Gareth Cassidy and his uncanny wardrobe of accents and celebrity impressions, and Jerone Marsh-Reid for his masterful tumbling.
Marvellous does get a bit silly. For those not overly impressed by slapstick, the pie-in-face humour will feel tedious. Still, with @sohoplace defying convention as the first purpose-built theatre to open in the West End in 50 years, Marvellous makes a fitting and charming opening production.
|What||Marvellous, @sohoplace review|
|Where||@sohoplace , 4 Soho Street , London, W1D 3BG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Tottenham Court Road (underground)|
29 Sep 22 – 26 Nov 22, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£25 - £65|
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|