The first play to open up the brand-new @sohoplace – a West End transfer of Marvellous from Staffordshire’s New Vic – is an unusual one which may not be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s kind of meant to be that way. The life of its protagonist, Neil Baldwin, is rather incredible, after all.
I haven’t seen the 2014 BAFTA-winning film (starring Toby Jones) or read the book from which the play is adapted. As such, it’s bizarre to have us applaud the ‘real’ Baldwin (actually Mike Hugo) before the play’s even begun, and before we’ve come to learn the remarkable story of a man with learning disabilities who became a famous clown, was the kit man for Stoke City, and was honoured by the late Queen, amongst other things.
Equally bizarre – or to be perfectly frank, offensive – is that just like Jones, the actors who play Baldwin at several points in his life (with the exception of Daniel Murphy, who was unable to perform on press night) do not have learning disabilities. This phenomenon of individuals portraying disabled people without that lived experience, branded ‘cripping up’ by advocates, often gives way to harmful stereotypes and caricatures of disability.
It is no different here, with Hugo giving Baldwin a big lower lip and Alex Frost playing a younger version of our protagonist with wide eyes and his tongue poking out at regular intervals. When Marvellous is already heavily reliant on silliness, slapstick and exaggeration, such impersonations are deeply uncomfortable and jarring. It may well be the case that the production is arguing that we can all be Baldwin and wish to spread a lot more happiness around – especially in the current climate – but this creative decision just spreads misconceptions instead.
With that being said, Hugo is casually charming and playful as Baldwin, regularly carrying a larger-than-life Bag for Life housing practically anything a person requires – including fold-up chairs and boxes of chocolates. The ensemble regularly and freely corpse at the ridiculousness of it all, and with whipped cream pies and yellow cards for rude words, Baldwin’s influence on the script as a co-writer is strongly felt. The humanity and emotion is there, even in the more serious and downbeat plot points of the second act, which is a lot more confident in dipping its toes into topics such as grief and ableism.
And even when a lot of the production is caked in overacting, hyperbole and often childish behaviour, the sharp turn towards the sombre actually has the effect of catching you off-guard, almost. It is, however, unfortunate that the more dramatic plot points are short-lived or disregarded. Mind counsellors are batted away from the story, while a question around whether individuals are laughing at or with Baldwin gets a few lines of dialogue before moving on. It could be suggesting that we should ignore the potential setbacks in life in the pursuit of happiness, but that’s far from realistic.
Then again, Marvellous indulges a lot in the exaggerative, which is tolerable to an extent. Gareth Cassidy boasts an impressive range of accents (he absolutely nails a Graham Norton impression, but his South African accent is problematic), while Jerone Marsh-Reid is startlingly energetic. As an ensemble, they all bounce and spin around the stage, but there are times where it all gets distracting, burying the chronological plot underneath comical props and borderline pantomime. Reminders of the year in which a scene is set is one of the few things which grounds us, while several lines from Hugo asking if we should get on with the show is indicative of how elaborate the play can become at times.
Marvellous feels enormous in nature, so what better a venue for it than @sohoplace in the round, even if it is constantly tarnished with cracked eggs, cream and water. It has a big heart – indisputably so – which will appeal to us all in some way, but so big is its staging that it overshadows its message. ‘Be happy’ still shines through and provides contentment, but even for a play as blooming marvellous – in some sense, literally – there still feels like there could be room for more.
Marvellous is now playing at @sohoplace until 26 November 2022.
Audio described, relaxed and captioned performances will take place on 17, 23 and 25 November respectively.
Production Images: Craig Sugden.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Marvellous’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.
Editor’s note – 21/10/22: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated Neil Baldwin has Down’s Syndrome, when he actually has a learning disability. This article has now been amended to remove this inaccuracy.