It's a pretty leftfield decision to open a brand new West End theatre with a play about a man most people have never heard of, with no celebrity cast or big name creatives on board. Almost as leftfield as the decision to name this new theatre @sohoplace, in fact! So it's a relief to be able to say that 'Marvellous' is both a perfect fit for this freshly minted venue, and a lively affirmation of the power of thinking differently.
Transferring from Newcastle-under-Lyme's New Vic Theatre, it tells the true story of Neil Baldwin, a 76-year-old perpetual optimist who's seemingly got the whole county of Staffordshire eating out of the palm of his hand. He's worked as a clown, a Stoke City FC kitman/costumed mascot, an unofficial but tireless Keele University dignitary, and now runs an aviary for retired circus canaries. Despite a diagnosis in early childhood, he rejects being labelled as learning disabled, so director Theresa Heskins has taken an ingenious approach to telling his story. A cast of neurodivergent performers take it in turns to become Neil, doggedly overseen by 'real Neil' Michael Hugo, a charismatic, bluntly hilarious presence who crashes onto stage carrying a bag for life of Cadbury's Roses at the start of the show.
What follows has a refreshingly unpolished, devised theatre kinda feel: co-writers Baldwin, Malcolm Clarke and Heskins tell Baldwin's life story in broadly chronological fashion but with loads of meta interruptions that keep the action wry and light on its feet. When things threaten to get heavy, the 'real Neil' bluntly refuses to open up about his mental health struggles on stage. And there's a hilarious running joke about a performance poetry section that gets perpetually vetoed by the cast.
It's rare to get a show (outside of panto season) that has so many moments of absolute child-like wonder and delight. In one scene, Baldwin's endlessly supportive, forward-thinking mother Mary (Suzanne Ahmet) decides she needs to teach her middle-aged son how to cook, so he can survive when she's gone. The mismatch between her awareness of her own mortality and his sunny live-in-the-moment optimism is almost unbearably poignant. But then he starts juggling potatoes, and soon, the pair are sending fountains of flour up into the air, in a beautifully choreographed food-based ballet that celebrates existing in the here and now.
Baldwin has other life lessons to impart. The show's concluding section has him imparting his secret to his life of celeb friends and honorary degrees: be happy, and ask for what you want. But smartly, Heskins gives a platform to the cast to show that it's not that simple for all neurodivergent people. She also nudges at harder questions, about whether Baldwin's being laughed at or with by the people around him. But this show is about joy, as much as difficulty, and it's refreshing to watch something that celebrates difference without falling into pat sentimentality.
@sohoplace's intimate, bright, in-the-round auditorium is the perfect venue for 'Marvellous', filling a niche that more charming but less flexible historic theatres have left empty. Yup, its aesthetic is a faintly naff (twinkling stars, mirrors everywhere), but it's hard to think of another West End space where you could pull of this messy, joyful, and entirely original show.