Photo: Craig Sugden

Originally a Stoke New Vic Theatre production, Marvellous has just opened the brand-new @sohoplace theatre – the first new West End theatre to open in the capital for 50 years. It’s based on the book of the same name, which has already been turned into a BAFTA-winning film. It tells the story of unlikely local legend of Newcastle-under-Lyme Neil Baldwin, who is now 74 (and we are told attends each show – he was there on press night); Neil was diagnosed with “learning difficulties” when he was four years old, although they didn’t call it that back then.

Over the course of a couple of hours we see Neil’s heart-warming true story play out; Michael Hugo takes the lead role as ‘real Neil’ while the supporting cast swap in for him throughout the decades (while taking on multiple other roles as well). It’s a feel-good and uplifting evening of light entertainment as his rather unique story develops.

Defying the odds – being told that “people like us don’t go to university” and that his goals should be achievable – he goes on to succeed in what is a many and varied career. Whether spending time touring with a circus as a clown, or becoming a local legend as Stoke City FC’s rather eye-catching kit man, or going on to receive an honorary degree from Keele University, Neil’s is very much a story worth celebrating.

It’s also great to see a cast with so many neurodiverse actors, and that particular attention is drawn to this and discussed on-stage. It’s rare to see this level of representation on the West End, and to use such a high-profile new theatre opening as a platform for these actors to tell their stories is a joy to see.

It does all get rather silly on occasion. The chicken suit sketches – during Neil’s tenure as Stoke City FC’s kit man – are surreal, as is a protracted slapstick baking scene. These didn’t really land for us – although there are still plenty of moments that did. We enjoyed the visual gags of increasingly ridiculous objects being removed from Neil’s bag for life, for example.

Marvellous has a bit of a community theatre feel to it on occasion, which felt a little bit incongruent with the stunning new surroundings. It succeeds more frequently than it misses, but on leaving the theatre we felt we enjoyed the story itself more than the actual presentation of it. This is an entertaining and uplifting show which we felt was enjoyable, rather than essential, viewing.

GAY TIMES gives Marvellous – 3/5

More information can be found here.