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Marvellous at New Vic Theatre – review

The biographical production continues until 9 April

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Michael Hugo and Gareth Cassidy in Marvellous
© Andrew Billington

Neil Baldwin is a very happy man. This is partly a matter of decision, not temperament; when his mother died, for instance, he decided that he was going to carry on being happy. His is a remarkable life story, one that is familiar to nearly all the members of the audience at the New Vic.

Born in 1946 and suffering from learning difficulties, he adopted Keele University at the age of 14. He became a circus clown and kitman to Stoke City, dressing up as a chicken or a toff. His life is made up of his unlikely friends: royalty, dignitaries of the Church and State, politicians, famous footballers. Above all he has a remarkable gift for friendship – and for saying exactly what he wants – and getting it.

In 2014 his story was the basis for a television film, followed by a book the next year, written in collaboration with his friend Malcolm Clarke whom he first met at Keele University in 1964. After these two, a play was pretty inevitable and Neil and director Theresa Heskins had the task of deciding what form it should take.

The result is both simple and sophisticated. The cast of six is neurodiverse, in deference to Neil's insistence that he doesn't have a disability. Most get the chance to play Neil at some stage in his life. Lis Evans' design consists of the letters of MARVELLOUS hanging over an initially empty stage area with a cleaner's mop and bucket the sole prop. The six prepare to start, then are interrupted by Michael Hugo as The Real Neil, seated in the audience with his carrier bag full of props and goodies. He takes over his story from the first meeting of his parents.

Marvellous is fun, the circus act with the egg thrown up in the air that always lands on Neil's head, the kitchen routine that ends up as the slop scene to end all slop scenes. But it also doesn't shy away from the difficulties Neil has faced: the stealing of his caravan, his mother's final illness. He is happy because of his own optimism and the message of the play is summed up finally when Hugo answers questions from the rest of the cast before they all launch into Ken Dodd's "Happiness".

The cast, quick-changing from one unlikely costume to another, are all admirable, notably Suzanne Ahmet in the devoted role as Mother and Gareth Cassidy playing a vast number of parts with dry wit ("He's a very good actor", says Hugo as Neil). But Michael Hugo's performance is remarkable. Mischievous, matter-of-fact, nonchalantly donning a dog collar when the mood takes him, pausing the action to discuss who's going to play which part or to show his photographs to someone in the audience, communicating in asides to the audience, he is so completely Neil that it comes as a shock to see the real Neil (as distinct from The Real Neil) taking a bow at the end.