Tuesday 8 November 2022

Theatre review: Marvellous

Nica Burns' pet project @sohoplace, the first new-build West End theatre in 50 years (as long as you define that very strictly within both geographical and SOLT-membership terms) has opened on what was formerly the site of the Astoria. A glass-fronted building with the general design aesthetic of a multiplex in a shopping centre, and toilets that do exist, as long as you don't look for them where the signs tell you to, it will probably, like most new theatres, take a while to feel welcoming and familiar. It also has an @ in its name, to show that it's at the cutting edge, assuming that it's currently 1997. At least things are done right in the auditorium, where it matters: In-the-round as the default configuration is a bit of a challenge to the idea that West End theatres look a certain way, and gives the venue an intimacy - I was in the Stalls but it looks like the galleries would feel reasonably close to the action as well. They're being praised for having the best seats in the West End, admittedly a bar that can be cleared just by pointing them at the stage.

There are a couple of starrier shows planned but the opening production is comparatively low-key, a transfer of the well-received Marvellous from Newcastle-under-Lyme's New Vic Theatre. Based on the memoir by Neil Baldwin and Malcolm Clarke, it's adapted for the stage by Baldwin and director Theresa Heskins.

The conceit is that six actors (Suzanne Ahmet, Gareth Cassidy, Alex Frost, Jerone Marsh-Reid, Daniel Murphy and understudy Shelley Atkinson) will be telling the life story of Neil Baldwin, a man with unspecified learning difficulties who did whatever he set his mind to in life by pure force of personality, turning up at Keele University in a dog-collar to greet new students, which he continued doing for fifty years until he was acknowledged as the university's unofficial mascot and given an honorary degree. He also spent nine years as a clown, only leaving when he realised everyone else in the circus was being paid and he wasn't, talked his way into being kit-man and mascot for Stoke City FC, and was played by Toby Jones in a TV biopic.

In keeping with his personality, the production has him make his way into this retelling of his life as well: Real Neil (understudy Perry Moore) is in the audience, and invites himself onto the stage to join in the action and make sure they tell the story his way. This involves a lot of slapstick, good-natured teasing of the rest of the cast and a refusal to delve into any of the darker areas of his life - both the fact that he was obviously bullied by the Stoke City players, and his period of depression after his mother's death, are issues Real Neil refuses to let the play engage with.

Unfortunately Marvellous didn't click with me at all, and felt like the opposite of Yeast Nation, whose ridiculousness was roundly hated but I loved: Here I felt like the only person in the room not swept up in the spirit of the piece. The signs were there that it would rub me up the wrong way when the cast encouraged the audience to give them five rounds of applause within the first five minutes; between the scripted corpsing, and the cheap laughs by impersonating famous people through one famous quote, this was too much of a collection of tropes I've seen many times before and never warmed to in the first place. The story itself is undoubtedly a life-affirming and inclusive one, and it seemed to be working its magic on everyone from young children, to adults, and the difficult teenage school parties in between. But for me it left me feeling like Tamsin Greig at the end of Love Soup.

PS: The next two shows at the venue have been announced, and are a bit more conventionally star-led for a West End venue. Might I suggest that they then do something featuring a much-beloved actor who's, er, getting on a bit? That way when he or she dies they'll have an excuse to change the venue name and pretend it isn't because the current name is naff.

Marvellous by Neil Baldwin and Malcolm Clarke, adapted for the stage by Neil Baldwin and Theresa Heskins, is booking until the 26th of November at @sohoplace Theatre, 4 Soho Place, Charing Cross Road, W1D 3BG.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Craig Sugden.


  1. I am the performer in Odd Shaped Ball, a play you reviewed in 2016, and I have been attempting to contact you for over a year. Please remove all photos of me in this blog. I am a teacher and this is inappropriate content. There has been a serious safeguarding issue regarding me recently and your negligence has fuelled this. I have been contacting for over a year without reply. You are breaking the law by keeping this up in spite of my requests. Delete it NOW

    1. Are you the person who anonymously asked in a comment in the 2016 review for photos to be removed, then didn't reply when I asked which photos they actually were? In any case I've now taken the Odd Shaped Balls review offline.

      The 2016 review itself is no longer online, blogger appears to have taken it down without informing me, which I assume is something to do with this.

    2. Are you contacting all the other blogs with reviews of the play? Because it's really easy to find photos of it.