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Marvellous at @sohoplace – review

The first new West End theatre in 50 years has opened its doors

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Michael Hugo (Real Neil) and cast
© Craig Sugden

The first new West End venue in 50 years officially opened its doors last night, which, given the last few years, is a nice sentence to write.

Venue owner Nica Burns has eschewed kicking off with some glitzy, star-led new play, deciding instead to transfer in the critically well-received New Vic production of Marvellous.

Transferring a show in from another UK city is a good call – a perfect symbol of the intrinsic connection between our West End and non-West End houses and the fact they all exist in the same eco-system, feeding and complimenting each other. Burns has shot out of the gate demonstrating that @sohoplace is not set to be some elite London location.

Michael Hugo (Real Neil)
© Craig Sugden

That doesn't mean Marvellous isn't a left-field choice in some ways – a two-and-a-half-hour ode to real local legend and some-time clown Neil Baldwin (his life was previously adapted into a film starring Toby Jones), a man who never took no for an answer and charmed his way into meeting monarchs, football legends, film stars and more. In 2010 he was celebrated by Keele University for 50 years' attendance – despite never officially holding a position there. He just rocked up at the student campus and made friends.

So, in fact, what becomes clear over the course of the evening is that Marvellous is an apt show to open the new, in-the-round venue – where the audience sits in a "warm hug" configuration. Neil's story, and Theresa Heskins' quietly effervescent, fourth-wall-busting production, are celebrations of communal happiness – coming together to laugh and smile.

It's straightforward, low-stakes fun, told at a full-throttle pace by a finely tuned company with the rapt audience in the palms of their hands. On Lis Evans' stage, minimal props and set mean the majority of the heavy lifting is being done by the hard-working multi-roling cast of seven (extra kudos has to go to Joe Sproulle and Perry Moore, who seamlessly stepped in with little time to cover an illness).

The beating heart of the show is Michael Hugo, playing the "real" Baldwin in a stand-out turn (other performers take on the role at points in the man's journey from the age of 3 upwards). Dry, wry and a spot-on impersonation of the real man, he sits like a mischievous eye at the heart of a sweet-natured storm. With his "bag for life" (a neat pun) like some modern-day Mary Poppins, Hugo presents all manner of props thanks to some subtle stagecraft – chairs, water jugs and more pop up out of his trusty sack.

Another striking point – Marvellous is one of the first times a West End show seemed to authentically present elements of neurodiversity in both casting and script (Baldwin is said to have the ill-fitting brand of "learning difficulties"), while never overly laden with sign-posting or preaching.

So it's a charming, low key opening for @sohoplace – a gorgeous, accessible space with a lovely downstairs restaurant, a wealth of toilets, easily useable lifts and more. This is surely a venue with lots of exciting programming in the pipeline (beyond what has already been revealed) – happily starting with its best foot forwards.

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