What a strange and exciting experience it is, witnessing the birth of a West End theatre. What shape will this new beast take? From the outside it looks like a Google office building; inside it’s more of a cruise ship — so far, so glitzy — but then into the auditorium, we finally find the empty space at its heart that all the noise is really about.

Credit: Craig Sugden

And it’s impressive. Not so much in the grandness of its construction – though the ceiling does disappear off through multiple layers of metal scaffold beams and lights – but in the openness of its stage, the modern art-deco panelling and wooden floor, and the unimpeded visibility of the audience seated in the round. There’s not a bad ticket in the house, and the actors feel so accessible and close — a brilliant blend of Fringe proximity but with the scale of a regional theatre.

The show itself is a surprise and a delight. It’s not the most tightly-structured story, but the performers address this, bringing the development process into the performance with references to writerly questions: What order do we tell the story in? Who gets to play which part? They start as an ensemble, coming together to introduce, embody, and perform the biography of the evening’s hero, the elusively famous yet supposedly legendary figure of Neil Baldwin. I hadn’t heard of him before this show, though his biopic, starring Toby Jones, won a BAFTA, and mentions of his many past lives as a vicar, circus clown, and kitsman for Stoke City F.C. sparked my curiosity. With so many guises and such a strong personal narrative, I wanted to know — who is this ‘marvellous’ man?

Credit: Craig Sugden

Fortunately, it turns out: a genuine legend. ‘Real Neil’ is a totally charismatic performer and deadpan comedian who holds the stage with such a clear knack for warming up a crowd that we can’t help but celebrate his life and all that it stands for. But there’s a twist — at least there was for me. It’s actually not him on the stage! The age gap should have given it away, but one look at the programme revealed that ‘Real Neil’ is in fact portrayed by an actor. It was a shock, but he’s honestly that good: Michael Hugo in the lead role, telling ‘his’ story as he conducts the company and audience through a gag-fuelled theatrical extravaganza of role-plays, prat-falls, and formative moments. This is a role that requires an intensely specific physicality, delivery, and timing, and he pulls it off with a verve that actual Neil’s presence in the audience only serves to enliven more. In fact, praise must be offered to the entire cast, and particularly to Suzanne Ahmet, who plays Neil’s mother with such earnest commitment and clarity of feeling that it’s hard to look away.

But despite the actors’ deft performances of colourful antics, silliness, and joy, the production only hints at finding a deeper message or meaning. It’s a sprawling, episodic biography realised by an array of entertaining (if at times a little repetitive) stage business, but Neil’s story doesn’t jump out with the urgency needed to sustain a two-hour show and often feels a little bit cute. The texture often favours extended gags and movement sequences over any real character development or dramatic arc: there’s no obvious obstacle for Neil to overcome, and instead we’re presented with a series of anecdotes that demonstrate how charismatic and remarkable he and his life are. Great! But it’s the kind of loose, meandering tale that can be enjoyable to hear over a nice cup of tea, and I spent much of the performance still hungry for the drama to begin.

Credit: Craig Sugden

Marvellous raises interesting questions around how to recount a person’s life when they themselves are in the room — and the results are curious, thought-provoking, and gently enjoyable. As a character, Neil is clearly hilarious and special, and a show with such a strong regional identity, postwar sensibility, and brilliance of character is a pleasure to behold — especially in a new venue clearly ready to invest in bringing fresh energy to the West End and closing the distance between performers and audience, fiction and reality. But I’m not sure what the show wants me to make of it all.

In the theatre’s brochure, a mother is recounted as telling her son that theatre is ‘a place where fantastic stories are told, songs are sung and you go home happy’. But is it not also a place to challenge, process, and explore? There was so much potential to weave a stronger message of adversity, hope, and personal triumph in this story, but it shies away from confronting Neil’s struggles with mental health or broadening the scope to address the complexities of life, instead opting for a simplified final gesture that sees the cast singing ‘happiness’ over and over again. This felt more uncomfortable and detached than jubilant and free, and undermined the potency of the piece as a whole. Moments where the depth of feeling were given room to breathe, such as the tragic passing of Neil’s mother, and references to the difficulties of being misunderstood because of one’s neurology, were truly felt and appreciated — if only they could have been driven in a clearer direction.

Credit: Craig Sugden

Ultimately, there are many moments of wit and tenderness in this clever, heartfelt show, but it failed to hold itself together or plunge the depths of its subject, and the result is, unfortunately, a little bit less than marvellous.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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