Review of ‘Marvellous’: “Thespian wonder”

West End’s first venue in 50 years has finally opened its doors to its inaugural production, transferring from the New Vic upon critical acclaim. Guillermo Názara reviews Marvellous, the play narrating the inspiring real life story of Neil Baldwin, to let us know if the hype matches the amazement of its character’s stirring achievements.

They say that great men dream of simple things. Do small people, then, only wish for grandeur? Well, sadly for you that’s not an answer I can help you with – at least not through this review. Because Marvellous may encompass many topics, but certainly knows nothing about “tiny men”. First came the TV film – recipient of a BAFTA Award Neil himself collected. Then, the book – which Neil also penned. And now, his tale has travelled to the stage – once again through words he has helped put both to paper and, this time, also on the spotlight. A big goal to many, but only the tip of the iceberg for somebody who shut a few mouths and pull some other’s jaws down by overcoming himself from the day he, as a child, was told to be behind the rest. At this moment, there’s no doubt that the race had just started…

And surely this has not been a quiet one if a play needs not one but six actors to portray the same role during a single performance. It may be his infectous stamina, it may be his unbeatable will power… Or it may be that the show can get silly AF. Because if there’s something this piece has proven is its ability to cover with slapstick comedy and foolish jokes a tale dealing with the serious struggle of beating society’s prejudice. Or in other words… It has a resounding voice of its own, with a tone and a style it could almost patent – fairly earning it the right to be called unique.

Credit: Craig Sugden

Conceived by Baldwin and Malcolm Clarke (also a character’s in the plot and probably Neil’s most lasting friend) and at the same time, made suitable to tread the boards by the production’s director Theresa Heskins and (yes, it’s once again him) Baldwin (by the way, it was very cool to be sitting just a couple of seats away from him during the premiere), the show uses the structural framework of “a play within a play” – in which its characters explore their acting abilities to give life to Neil on different flashes of his personal journey. Or failing this, his relatives, colleagues, teachers… or pieces of furniture, giving a whole new meaning to playing ‘Tree no 1’ for your child at his school festival.

Jokes apart (if you could just politely laught at my attempt – even if it’s just out of pity), the truth is that the show’s storytelling construction not only offers the viewer a more amusing enjoyable ride, but boosts its rythm and makes it more varied in appearance – helping maintain the viewer’s interest and creating bits of absolute singularity out of the most banal things in the world. Relying on a minimum set design (credit to Lis Evans), the atmosphere is however successfully recreated through the use of simple props and, overall, well executed lighting and projections by Daniella Beattie – both able to transport us, to an acceptable extent, to any place (no matter if it belongs to the earth or the soul) the authors want to take us to.

Credit: Craig Sugden

But apart from its compelling writing, the grandest highlight of this play is no other than its mesmerizing cast. Led by Michael Hugo (to portray the real Neil and either play him or direct the others to do so), his magnetic transformation into the show’s hero (with nearly frighteningly accurate mannerisms and unspeakable fortitude that, whithout any exaggeration, is really out of this world) exudes nothing else but the very high standards this production is founded on. On the other side, Gareth Cassidy radiates starlight on his own through his hilarious, energetic and extremely talented rendition of a long list of roles of which none of them seems able to defeat him. Finally, Suzanne Ahmet makes a most moving homage to Neil’s mother by emanating charm in her performance and combining it with a natural (and much enganging) comedy bone.

Using a term such as Marvellous to name a play could sound as pretentious at its best. They may excuse themselves by saying that they are referring to the man and not the play itself, but the double entendre is obvious and, intentional or not, undetachable from its image. And if there’s something that we’ve learned through years and years of excruciating advertising stalking everywhere in any possible form, that is never to trust what they’re selling – at least not to the point of believing all of its “wonders”. By that logic, Marvellous should be treated with the same caution, but the thing is that it’s a delightful show featuring a brilliant and much original narrative of a wowing real life, able to move and generate a good bunch of emotions (and reflections) at many levels. Should then we say that the title is therefore telling the truth? Not really. Because the title is not an overpromise – it’s an understatement.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Marvellous plays at the Soho Place from Tuesday to Saturday. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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