“I always wanted to be happy, so I decided to be.” – Neil Baldwin.
Based on the life of local living legend, Neil ‘Nello’ Baldwin, Marvellous was set to take to the stage of the New Vic’s theatre-in-the-round in September 2020, but due to the pandemic, it was pushed back to April 2021, before being moved to March 2022.
But the life-affirming and inspiring production has finally taken to the stage, and what better a time than the week of Neil’s 76th birthday?
Neil is a man who has more feathers in his cap than was in his chicken costume as Stoke City kit man. He’s been Neil the reverend, the hitchhiker, Nello the clown, Lord Baldwin of Keele, honorary doctorate, BEM and so much more.
He’s a man who’s made some ‘very good friends’ over the years, from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, to Lou Macari and politician Tony Benn.
As I stepped into the New Vic theatre in Neil’s hometown of Newcastle-under-Lyme, a balloon arch adorned the stairway with the message ‘Happy Birthday Neil’ displayed on the TV. Upstairs, portraits of the man himself commissioned by local artists adorned the walls.
I had a chat with Dom Webber of The New Vic, who said the 76-year-old had been to every show so far since its premiere on Friday – and didn’t seem intent on missing a single one.
Heading to my seat, I spotted Neil sitting in the aisle next to me, a couple of rows back, and after wishing him a happy birthday, I took my seat and felt as though I were among royalty with a smile beaming across my face. Neil has that effect on people, it’s like magic, really.
Above the stage were huge light up letters spelling out ‘Marvellous’ – the play taking the same name as the BAFTA award-winning film broadcast on BBC Two, and the book Neil wrote with Keele university graduate Malcolm Clarke – who is now chair of the Football Supporters Association, also in attendance for the theatre production.
The cast – selected with Neil’s assistance – is a seven strong group complete with neurodiverse actors.
Artistic director Theresa Heskns said: “Whilst many believe that Neil has a disability, Neil himself says he does not. So we came to the decision that we would aim to bring together a neurodiverse cast, each of whom would have the chance to play the man himself.”
In doing so it very much reflects Neil’s inclusive and generous spirit. Michael Hugo plays ‘the real Neil’ – having been fantastic in Coppelia and dozens of other New Vic productions.
Meanwhile, the six other actors play versions of Neil under ‘the real Neil’s’ instruction, with Daniel Murphy – who starred in the Marvellous film – playing Neil at Keele university, as well as several side characters like the reverend and lorry drivers.
Jerone Marsh-Reid plays Nello in his circus era, where he would every day have an egg land smack bang on his noggin.
Gareth Cassidy, an MMU graduate, is a man of many voices and the heart of a lot of comedy throughout the play, with Suzanne Ahmet offering side splitting slapstick and a heartwarming portrayal of Neil’s mum, Mary Baldwn.
The final Neil Baldwins are Charlie Bence, who also makes a fabulous and supportive Malcolm and at one point, a lion, as Alex Frost made his first appearance at The New Vic, off the back of filming a new four-part drama starring Steve Coogan for BBC 1.
Marvellous beautifully portrays Nello’s absolutely extraordinary life, often in his own words. It’s full of infectious joy, playful wit, and laugh out loud comedy, so brilliant that I could hear Neil’s hearty chuckle from behind me, as well as him singing along to his two favourite hymns, which found themselves in the script.
It takes audiences on a journey from Neil’s time as a clown, as an enthusiastic Keele University morale booster, and the Stoke City kit man, where Lou Macari dubbed him ‘the best signing’ he ever made.
Real Neil, Michael Hugo, stuns audiences with his magic bag for life as he pulls tables, chairs and washing line props from the plastic bag. But that’s just what being around Nello feels like – magic.
The attention to detail was beautiful, from passing Neil’s real birth certificate around to the audience members, to Hugo sporting a replica of the BEM medal Neil always wears on his left lapel after being awarded it in 2019 – he even wore it on his new three piece suit on Tuesday.
When asked what his favourite bit of the play was, Neil responded: “All of it”. And that’s exactly my response, too.
Optimistic and life affirming, the play not only highlights the incredible life of Neil Baldwin – a man who has done everything he wanted to do, and been everything he wanted to be (except Prime Minister, but there’s still time for that, he says) – but also shines a light on overcoming learning difficulties and neurodiversity.
Neil has never been held back, nor does he ever intend to be. All he wants is to be happy and to make people laugh. Marvellous sees his words of wisdom and nuggets of knowledge brought to life on stage in a way that doesn’t take itself too seriously, much like Neil doesn’t take life too seriously.
His contagious cheerfulness quickly rubs off on you, and reminds us all to be more Nello. In fact, I did take a leaf out of Neil’s book, and while I didn’t ask for a lift, a biscuit or a cuppa, he did very kindly sign my programme for me, which I will very much treasure.
Marvellous is just that. Marvellous. And if there’s one thing you do this spring, make sure it’s a trip to The New Vic Theatre before April 9 to see it.