the anarchic and festive spectacle is a bold opening for the new West End theater

(Craig Sugden)

Like its subject, this playful and exuberant theatrical happening seduces with heart and good humor. StaffordshireNeil ‘Nello’ Baldwin, now 76, was diagnosed with learning disabilities – “they didn’t call him that back then” – at the age of four. He didn’t let that stop him from becoming a circus clown, a kit-man for City of Stoke FC, a Keele University staple, minor celebrity and fearless autograph hunter who counts Harold Wilson, Kevin Keegan and our new king among his conquests.

He’s already been immortalized in a book and TV movie starring Toby Jones, and now he’s storming the new West End theater in the protean form of Michael Hugo, to disrupt and disarm fellow actors assembling a stage collage of his life. . Director Theresa Heskins has assembled a neurodiverse cast, all of whom play versions of Neil – under the piercing gaze of Hugo’s “Real Neil” – and countless characters from his life. An actor fell ill yesterday and two doubles intervened without incident. Talk about triumph over adversity and life imitating art.

The script – by Baldwin, his friend Malcolm Clarke and Heskins – is intentionally rambling. The determination to celebrate Neil’s sunshine and his ability to charm people means that the bullying and exploitation he also suffered is minimized. The accents, jokes and respectful introduction of historic Stoke players will have had greater resonance at the New Vic Theater in Baldwin’s hometown of Newcastle-under-Lyme, where this production premiered.

Still, my reservations were regularly and kindly dismantled. Much of that is down to Hugo, whose impeccable timing is matched by his rubbery physique, and the heartwarming and heartbreaking Suzanne Ahmet as Neil’s mother, Mary. Around them, Heskins constructs a larky narrative that oscillates in time and works on multiple “meta” levels.

New West End venue @sohoplace (Tim Soar/AHMM)

New West End venue @sohoplace (Tim Soar/AHMM)

Hugo’s “Real Neil” directs and edits the action as it unfolds, skipping bits and reworking others, asking the audience if they should “move on.” One prominent actor (Gareth Cassidy) is relegated to exaggerated accents and impersonations: another (Charlie Bence) keeps trying to introduce a prodigious spoken poem. There are cream pies and a panto cooking scene. Famous footballers turn into taxi drivers and archbishops. Neil’s self-confidence means he thinks he could be England manager or prime minister. “There is still time”, Hugo impassively launches to the public.

Props appear, Mary Poppins-style, through Neil’s ever-present Lifetime Bag, the audience surrounding an almost bare stage. How daring to open this flamboyant new venue with something so gritty, anarchic and festive, rather than a star vehicle or a classic. The show’s ending, dealing with Neil’s belated near-fame, is rushed and confusing, but it ends with his philosophy: work hard, make others happy, be happy yourself. Not a bad code to live by.

As for @sohoplace (still a terrible name), the auditorium is pristine and charming, the building clearly friendly and porous like older theaters and converted spaces are not, but proportionally lacking in charm. Currently, public spaces look like a cruise ship or a casino. But some interesting things are planned here: Josie Rourke’s production of As You Like It, and Medea with Sophie Okonedo. Let’s see what it’s like when a few other acting companies have roughed up its edges.

@sohoplace, as of November 26;

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