Marvellous is an unexpectedly unfashionable play to launch the new theatre. This is not meant as criticism, it’s a fact: the play is the opposite of what you would get if you were to roll everything currently playing in London into one.
Whilst other theatres are eager to throw portentous issues onto their stages to dissect with clinical attentiveness, the brand-new theatre @sohoplace seems to make an active effort to resist the artistic zeitgeist. As a result, the play is neither, paraphrasing Brecht, a mirror to reflect reality, nor a hammer with which to shape it. It is just a bit of silly fun, an audacious move in its lack of audaciousness.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. But one wonders how theatre must adapt to survive not only in this economy but where entertainment is easily accessible. There is enough competition from other theatres, most of which are located around the corner. The marketing declares that it is the first new built theatre in Soho in over fifty years, as if Soho was in desperate need of new theatres. You can’t walk for five minutes in the West End without stumbling into one.
The play celebrates the extraordinary life of Neil ‘Nello’ Baldwin who traversed the latter half of the 20th century as a circus clown, the mascot and kit man for Stoke City FC, and an autograph hunter. Above all else it harks back to an uncynical time. Baldwin showed up at Keele University to greet students and became part of the furniture without anyone batting at eyelid. Needless to say this is unthinkable in the 21st century’s anxiety ridden state of hypervigilance.
Director Theresa Heskins delights with her wholesome vision conjuring memories of yesteryear. The versatile cast are decked out in sweater vests and thick glasses each of whom inject the performance with an infectious energy. They multirole to enact episodes from Baldwin’s life with a scrappy playfulness which extends across its form with a “real Neil” stepping in and out of the story to steer it. Props and set and are kept to a minimum apart from the odd visual gag. It’s less about the theatricality and more about the warmth radiating from Baldwin’s character.
For some, its irreverence will be too much. The play does descend into pantomime on more than one occasion and drags towards the end. But there is an undulating cheeriness in the production’s heart that might just be the bright ray of optimism that London needs.