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'Marvellous' review — biographical play is filled with heart, but could use more art

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Let’s start with the good news, which in this case is the venue: the awkwardly named but entirely welcoming @sohoplace, which graces a formerly tatty stretch of central London near where those of a certain vintage will recall the Astoria Theatre of long ago. (That one closed in 2009.) This 602-seat theatre in the round joins the nearby Elizabeth Line station as part of an urban regeneration that gives an entirely welcome lift to a heavily trafficked thoroughfare.

Purpose-built with the audience on all sides, the auditorium is immediately inviting and, unusually these days, allows actors’ voices to carry without the need of the amplification. This intimacy bodes well for the two classics lined up for later this season: As You Like It, with Alfred Enoch, Leah Harvey, and Martha Plimpton; and Medea, boasting the powerhouse combo of Ben Daniels and Sophie Okonedo.

So I hope it’s not overly churlish of me to be underwhelmed by the season opener, Marvellous, which arrives trailing kudos from its premiere engagement at the New Vic Theatre in the Staffordshire market town of Newcastle-under-Lyme. (That's not to be confused with the larger industrial locale of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, an altogether more urban destination.)

Marvellous opened there in March, and one can see the logic of inaugurating a new address with its London debut. It’s important that theatre in the capital be outward-looking, and Marvellous manages to be inclusive on that level and many others, all of them salutary reminders of the theatre’s potentially wide reach.

The problem is a show so busy ingratiating itself that you reel under the weight of its insistent good cheer. The subject is Neil Baldwin, aka Nello, a Staffordshire legend whose story has been told in an autobiography and in a BAFTA-winning 2014 TV film in which Toby Jones played Baldwin. Telling of a triumph over adversity that comes honestly by both laughter and tears, the TV Marvellous avoids the twin traps of cutesiness and sentimentality to which stage director and co-author Theresa Heskins’s stage adaptation succumbs.

Very little in the bustling production — that more than once breaks the fourth wall — was as moving at the performance attended as the genuinely heartwarming sight of the real Baldwin, now 76, watching his life unfold from a ringside seat. There he was again by the exit as playgoers filed out, so one could voice a delight in his achievements face-to-face.

If only the play let us discover Baldwin’s gifts for ourselves, rather than announcing them at every turn. As it is, we get an energetic, pantomime-style approach to biography that went off without a hitch at the press performance attended. That’s worth saying given the sudden illness of cast member Daniel Murphy: Two understudies, Perry Moore and Joe Sproulle, ably stepped into a company that folds neurodivergent performers into its embrace with ease.

Baldwin is the magpie figure who transcended learning difficulties to become a clown and kit man for Stoke City football club and a spokesperson for the value of positivity in life. His irrepressible nature is caught by a hardworking ensemble’s evident lead, Michael Hugo. He comes cheekily billed as “real Neil,” which must be rather amusing to the real Neil seated that night just metres away. Here’s someone for whom the world would be his oyster, if he liked seafood.

The play exists to impart a life lesson, and might be better off not checking in so constantly with the audience to see if we are enjoying ourselves. (“Isn’t it marvellous?” we’re rather predictably asked at one point.) A man in a chicken suit hops into view one minute; an impromptu cookery class takes place the next. Moments of greatest pathos are saved for the scenes between Neil and his ceaselessly progressive and kind mum (Suzanne Ahmet, in the role for which Gemma Jones won a BAFTA on screen).

In need of trimming, the play possesses something of the regional appeal and direct emotional allure of a musical like Blood Brothers, which became a West End fixture. But you can’t help but feel more sophisticated storytelling would allow Marvellous to live up to its name and draw in those spectators – and London will be full of them – new to the happiness Neil imparted, and who might like that quality fully dramatised and not just larkily announced. The show has lots of heart and could now use some art.

Marvellous is at @sohoplace through 26 Nov. 2022. Book Marvellous tickets on London Theatre.

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