Like its subject, this playful and exuberant theatrical event wins you over with a pure heart and good humor. Neil ‘Nello’ Baldwin of Staffordshire, now 76, was diagnosed with learning difficulties – “they didn’t call him that then” – at the age of four. He didn’t let that stop him from becoming a circus clown, a Stoke City FC kit-man, a fixture at Keele University, a minor celebrity and a fearless autograph hunter who numbers Harold Wilson, Kevin Keegan and our new one. king among his conquests.
He’s already been immortalized in a book and a TV movie with Toby Jones, and now he takes the new West End theater by storm in Michael Hugo’s protean form, to upset and disarm the other actors who assemble a scenic collage of the his life. Director Theresa Heskins has assembled a neurodiverse crew, all playing versions of Neil – under the glittering gaze of Hugo’s “Real Neil” – and countless characters from his life. One actor fell ill yesterday and two substitutes intervened without problems. We speak of the triumph over adversity and of life that imitates art.
The script – by Baldwin, his friend Malcolm Clarke and Heskins – is deliberately poor. The determination to celebrate Neil’s sunshine and his ability to fascinate people means that the bullying and exploitation he suffered too is downplayed. The accents, lines and reverent presentation of Stoke’s historic players will have had greater resonance at the New Vic Theater in Baldwin’s hometown of Newcastle-under-Lyme, where this production was created.
However, my reserves were constantly and gently dismantled. Much of this comes down to Hugo, whose flawless timing is paired with his chewy physicality, and Suzanne Ahmet, heartwarming and heartbreaking as Neil’s mom Mary. Around them, Heskins builds a playful narrative that moves back and forth in time and works on different “meta” levels.
Hugo’s “Real Neil” directs and modifies the action as it goes, skipping parts and reworking others, asking the audience if they should “get a move on.” One conceited actor (Gareth Cassidy) is relegated to making exaggerated accents and imitations: another (Charlie Bence) continues to try to introduce a prodigious verbal poem. There are custard pies and a panto cooking scene. Famous footballers turn into taxi drivers and archbishops. Neil’s self-esteem means he thinks he can be England’s manager or prime minister. “There is still time,” Hugo tells the audience.
Props pop up, like Mary Poppins, through Neil’s omnipresent life bag, the audience surrounding an almost bare stage. What a nerve to open this brand new venue with something so rude, anarchic and celebratory, rather than a star vehicle or a classic. The show’s finale, which deals with Neil’s near-fame in old age, is hasty and confusing, but ends with his philosophy: work hard, make others happy, be happy yourself. Not a bad code to live with.
As for @sohoplace (still a terrible name), the auditorium is pristine and lovely, the building is clearly as easy to use and porous as older theaters and converted spaces are not, but commensurately lacking in charm. Public spaces now resemble a cruise ship or a casino. But interesting things are expected 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 margins.
@sohoplace, until November 26; sohoplace.org