A recipe for happiness at the newest West End theatre
For the first time in 50 years, we have a sparkling new theatre opening up in London’s west end. @sohoplace sits elegantly above TFL’s new Elizabeth Line, just across from Tottenham Court tube station and is the culmination of 12 years of design, building and polish. The auditorium itself is luscious, spacious (plenty of legroom) and claims to have great sight lines from all the 602 seats. Nestled in the stalls for the London transfer of the New Vic’s Marvellous, the space feels intimate and comfortable bolstered by welcoming front-of-house staff. Whilst the performance area is clever and versatile, sadly the corridors and bar areas are more than a little snug with toilet queues clogging the walkways (there was even a queue for the gents). There will, of course, be teething issues in standing up an entire building but on first impressions, @sohoplace has huge potential as a home for intricate and exciting theatre that will dazzle and entertain audiences for years to come.
But back to the show. Marvellous is a cartoonish retelling of the British Forrest Gump, Neil Baldwin (co-written by the man himself). Neil, now 76, has led a life like no other. He has done it all from circus clown and BAFTA winner to Stoke City kit manager and friend of the stars, and following an award-winning film where he was portrayed by Toby Jones, Neil’s story has now been joyously translated to the stage. An ensemble of seven actors led by the Real Neil (played by Mike Hugo) piece the tale together beginning with his parent’s first date at The Victoria Ground right through to the present day. Neil is rare proof that anything is possible if you ask and persist and that message underpins this heartwarming piece of theatre.
Mike Hugo is charming and brilliant as the Real Neil when directing and sharing the story, his trusty Mary Poppins-esque bag for life always at his side. Hugo is exceptional in the demanding role and along with the rest of the cast is visibly revelling in the warming joy of this production. There is other strong casting from the creative team, particularly great when enabling neurodivergent actors to thrive in the playful nature of the show. Gareth Cassidy also deserves a mention for the sheer number of accents he delivers - an audience favourite being his BAFTA presenting Graham Norton. For the most part Marvellous does not feel like a traditionally scripted and rehearsed play, instead (helped by the brand new in the round space) it is as if we are immersed in a sandbox where the actors bounce ideas around with the only goal being to have fun. You cannot ask for a more infectiously delightful show.
Casually clever staging from Theresa Heskins helps transport us through the various location of Baldwin’s life - a highlight being the effervescent and farcical cooking scene that left the audience in hysterics but also ducking away from the splashing eggs, flour and milk. Lighting design from Daniella Beattie brings shape and further intimacy to the show, really utilising the angles and placements of lights in the new auditorium. With the stage itself being fairly simple, the lighting adds variety and is equally effective when projecting moving football pitch markings as it is when embracing the more delicate and vulnerable scenes of the second half. Lis Evan’s costume designer works wonders in helping the actors embody the diverse characters that crop up along the way, leaping (often in the same scene) between clowns, footballers, lion tamers, bishops and even the Queen.
@sohoplace’s auditorium has been referred to as a hug which makes the choice to have Marvellous be the first production staged there so perfect. This is a play that will leave you feeling warm and whole even on the coldest of evenings and a genuine delight for theatregoers of all ages. It is chaotic in all the best ways and rightly does justice to the remarkable man that is Neil Baldwin.
Photography - Craig Sugden
Originally published by London Theatre Reviews