The incredible story of Neil “Nello” Baldwin BME is, as the title suggests, Marvellous!

Nello, now in his seventies, was diagnosed with learning difficulties as a child, although “they didn’t call it that in those days”. When most would say Neil has a disability, Neil says he does not. Determined to live without limitation, Baldwin defied expectations to become a registered circus clown, a ferocious autograph hunter, honorary graduate of Keele University and Stoke City FC’s kit man, making him a legend in his native Staffordshire. 

Already celebrated in a book and TV film (starring Toby Jones), Neil’s forceful and fearlessly feel-good presence is now the subject of this play, which brings his story up to date by referencing the book, film and Jones. It opens the West End’s newest theatre, @sohoplace (a 602-seater auditorium), the brainchild of powerhouse producer Nica Burns. 

Director, Theresa Hawkins has assembled actors who play versions of Baldwin, whilst “Real Neil” (Michael Hugo) oversees the action and shapes the play. The piece has some semblance of a chronology but sometimes, directed by the Real Neil, skips out of sequence to dreamlike sketches. The actors, playing a little exhausted by this are quick to humorously point out that it’s non-linear. This cleverly gives us insight into the way Neil flits through life.  Very occasionally though, this and its relentlessly quick narrative, means we get a little lost.

Michael Hugo is charming as the “Real Neil”. His expressionless yet zestful portrayal is so convincing that my theatre buddy (who was familiar the story), thought it was really Neil, until I pointed out that Baldwin was sitting in the audience! It tells you a lot about Nello’s refreshing self-belief that someone would think he’d play himself and Hugo encapsulates this characteristic. He’s also playful and funny, drawing us in with his positivity.   

We understand how Neil’s acquainted himself with royalty, Gary Lineker and the Archbishop of Canterbury, as the supporting cast all capture his optimism. With vigour, they also take on other characters Nello encounters throughout his life. Gareth Cassidy has us in stitches when he’s directed to play a character, but given the wrong accent several times, so veers into Northern Irish, Scottish, Geordie and more with ease and gusto. 

Suzanne Ahmet is moving as Mrs. Baldwin, you can see where Nello gets his positively from.  She encourages her son to dream, hiding her anxiety about how he may be received. There is a lovely slapstick baking scene, showing the joy and love between mother and son which is heart-warming. 

In the round, the set is minimal. Giant letters adorned with bulbs spelling out Marvellous are suspended from the ceiling. They illuminate at “light bulb” moments when something is “marvellous”.  Hugo pulls out small props from a big ‘Bag for Life’ and places it on the stage for a washing line pole to ascend from it.  

The theatre itself makes a mark at the top of Tottenham Court Road, with its massive billboard and lights sparkling in one of London’s main shopping districts. Inside, there’s dark wood and dimly lit corridors with big windows surrounding the outside of each level of the auditorium, on one side overlooking the tube and the huge electronic hoardings on the shops. There’s a bar in the lobby and a few caverns dotted around, which gives it the feel of a modern, up market hotel. The seats are comfortable with more legroom than in older theatres and every chair has a great view with tiered seating on the floor and only one row in the balconies. 

There was a real buzz about it. We have no doubt the theatre will thrive, and we hope continue the inclusivity displayed by casting neurodiverse actors in its inaugural play.  

Marvellous is a touching tribute to a unique man and his inspiring life. It’s funny, bright, hopeful, quaint and beautifully executed. It’s magnificent. 

For tickets: Marvellous Select Your Tickets - @sohoplace

Written by Victoria Willetts


Photo credit: Craig Sugden

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