Review by Daz Gale
If you have walked down Charing Cross Road over the last few years, you would have seen a lot of work being done while Crossrail was being prepared. Well, it’s all ready to go now and what we have is the first new build West End theatre in 50 years called @sohoplace. That is now open to the public with its very first production Marvellous entertaining audiences. But does the show (and the theatre) live up to that title?
Marvellous was first seen at the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme and tells the story of Neil Baldwin who was not expected to be a success in his life. Neil was determined he was destined to do wonderful things and so he took great pleasure proving them all wrong with what he could achieve. This heart-warming and joyous tale follows Neils life from his childhood in the 1950s to the present day, highlighting some of the more notable aspects of his life to truly captivating results.
Marvellous makes use of the brand new setup of @sohoplace, performing in the round to an intimate audience who find themselves involved throughout proceedings in the very best kind of immersive theatre. The fourth wall isn’t so much broken as it is completely smashed to pieces with cast members breaking character to acknowledge they are in a play and question some of the choices, while handing props to audience members and even asking one for a lift home. The whole thing is effortlessly charming and has you in the palm of their hands from the moment you sit down to be accosted by an excitable cast member walking around chatting to everyone. An inspired touch that very much set the tone for the informal and friendly evening.
Performed completely in the round, Marvellous performs magic with its relatively exposed set design, working magic in the empty stage with an ingenius use of props (A rather unique umbrella being my particular favourite). The design by Lis Evans and inspired direction from Theresa Heskins and Caroline Wilkes leads to a varied play where imagination takes over as different settings are described. In other hands, this may not have been as effective but with this dream team, it was a complete joy to witness.
Written by Neil Baldwin and Malcolm Clarke, the shows aim is the same as Neils in life – to make people happy. Whereas topics such as Neils "learning difficulties", moments of bullying and tragedy in his life provide some more sombre moments for the show, these are merely touched upon to highlight their significance before bringing the audience back with a smile and a laugh immediately. Marvellous radiates joy from start to finish which is a testament to the writing and production overall.
It's not just joyful, Marvellous is wickedly and consistently funny. A brilliantly timed line about Neil wanting to be Prime Minister gets a huge response thanks to the resignation of the Prime Minister that same day (given recent events, this will probably happen again before the end of its run next month). One highlight in act 2 is preceded with a warning that it is full of slapstick and silliness. What follows is a fantastically chaotic and consistently hilarious moments of theatre I have seen this year. The action on stage might be a total mess (front row – you WILL get wet) but the way this scene is written, directed and acted is truly exceptional.
The cast is led by Michael Hugo as “Real Neil” who does a flawless job channelling the actual Neil Baldwin. From the moment he interrupts proceedings from the audience, he ensures all eyes are on him. While he allows the rest of the cast to play Neil throughout stages of his life, Real Neil is always present with Michael providing impeccable comic timing and a commanding stage presence in an unashamedly authentic and overall amazing portrayal of the real man (himself watching on from the audience).
The rest of the cast take on a variety of roles throughout the show, all taking turns to play Neil and a range of other characters. Suzanne Ahmet gives a beautiful portrayal of Neils mum, paramount in adding to the hilarity of some of the more chaotic moments with effortless comedy timing and a great bit of ad-libbing. Jerone Marsh-Reid is a highlight throughout, particularly channelling Neils days as a clown with Charlie Bence, Gareth Cassidy and Alex Frost all getting their moment in the spotlight in what is a consistently impressive cast. You get the sense that the whole cast are clearly having the time of their lives on that stage and that rubs off into the audience in a show you can't help but fall in love with.
For this performance, cast member Daniel Murphy was unable to perform so his role was played by two fantastic performers, Perry Moore and Joe Sproulle, who were effortless in the role despite their limited time preparing for it. Another testament of the magic of theatre and what “The show must go on” really means. Both in the shows contest and in its casting choices, Marvellous also has a refreshingly inclusive attitude to neurodiversity with the more damaging labels touched upon in the writing. Let's hope to see more of this in theatre going forward.
Marvellous truly is a remarkable show. The way it can elicit a smile on your face immediately and keep it glued there for the next two and a bit hours is second to none. It somehow manages to be hilarious as well as touching, heartfelt and incredibly thoughtful - this is a show that isn't afraid to poke fun at itself and its themes but is deeply intelligent in the way this is carried out. In the show, Neil talks about how true happiness is making other people happy. Consider that done with this show which brings happiness in a way not many can manage. Fantastically written, wonderfully acted and ingeniously staged, this slice of pure theatre joy really is Marvellous.
Marvellous plays at @sohoplace until November 26th. Tickets from http://www.sohoplace.org/
Photos by Craig Sugden
I also wanted to write separately about @sohoplace as a venue – a new theatre opening in the West End is a deeply exciting prospect, especially considering it wasn’t too long ago every theatre was closed from the pandemic. This theatre and the building in general is truly stunning – the décor, the staff and most importantly the accessibility are phenomenal with clearly a great deal of thought going into every miniscule detail of the place. This thought and detail extends to inside the theatre with comfortable seating where every single seat has a flawless view of the stage. A welcome addition to the West End, I look forward to coming back to this beautiful theatre time and time again.