DODD-LEVEL HAPPINESS IN SOHO
Hard, on its first night ever, not to review the theatre itself. Nica Burns and Nimax open the first new West End theatre in fifty years: agleam with brass and glass. neon and shine and bars and chutzpah, perching in perfect acoustic comfort above rumbling old Tubes noe intersecting at Tottenham Court Road with the elegant new Elizabeth Line after the years of Crossrail chaos and disruption. Sweeping balconies show it off in the round for its first three shows, it has rehearsal spaces and the same fastidious theatre-architects (Haworth Tompkins) as the lovely Bridge.
It’s swanky, developer-modern, triumphant: and fond though one may be of gilded Victorian playhouses and scruffy pub spaces, I review-the-playhouse (terrible thing to do usually) because it was a day the whole world shook its head at our financial disgrace and revolving-door of useless prime ministers. So a bit of flash and nerve made it feel that bit better to be British. And before you harrumph about fatcat prices, they go down to £ 25, and it looks perfectly nice in that top balcony.
Now to the show. With characteristic foxiness, for all the glass ‘n gleam and firstnightery Nica Burns eschews all temptations to do something chatterati-chic. This very metropolitan theatre explodes into life instead with a festive, eccentric, warmly inclusive celebration of family, community, clowning, neurodiverse glee and Stoke City Football Club. It ends with both a funeral hymn that makes you weep and a custard-pie fight, and arrived in Soho from the Potteries, the New Vic at Newcastle under Lyme, and its remarkable director Therese Heskins.
The story of Neil Baldwin, born in 1949 with a learning disability and a startlingly vivid gift for happiness, became a notable film with Toby Young. It tells how he wandered into Keele University – not employed or studying – in a clerical collar and took it on himself to welcome students , and carried on doing it for decades. Likewise, having decided he should be Stoke City manager he turned up, charmed Lou Macari and became its kit man and mascot in loopy chicken and turtle outfits. He worked years as a circus clown across Britain, got the British Empire Medal from the Queen for service to the community, and charmed innumerable famous figures from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Duke of Edinburgh. His trademark became part of his ‘disability’, a dry, hilarious straight-talking friendliness, a sunflower spirit turning to the light.
The play is ‘meta’ – six diverse actors (some themselves neurodiverse or with experience of it) play Neil at different ages and the people around him, as “real Neil” – an extraordinary evocation by Michael Hugo – emerges from the front row with a shopping bag full of random props, and supervises the telling. But it’s a real narrative, and at its care is his mother, first patiently coaxing the infant to talk, with a speech therapist; caring, worrying, cooking, anxiously letting him go on his various crazy, potentially humiliating excursions while knowing – as she says at one heartrending point – “Not everyone’s kind”.
Neil himself has knockbacks and snubs and is sacked from one circus, his caravan towed off-site and dumped in a layby, but he hitches home and explains that he’s upset, but “In life you have to be upset sometimes”. The wisdom of that knocks you out. He loves making people laugh. His time with Stoke players raises the one moment when it is acknowledged that there is a wrong kind of laugh, mockery of his condition and speech. But he rides that, and plays his own pranks back (like wearing the entire team’s underpants, cue a panto washing-line gag).
Late on, our anxiety for him is allowed to rise a little despite all his friends and backers: his mother, movingly, starts teaching him to cook, for when she will be gone. It’s done in full-on slapstick, rather brilliantly (eggs and flour everywhere) and there are wonderful lines. Wielding a pinny she asks “Now, what’s the first thing you do when you go into the kitchen, Neil?” “Have a biscuit!|”. But it touches on the fear of every parent of a learning-limited child, and you shiver. His grief too feels real when she dies. Actually, it all feels real.
The players are physical-comedy masters, hefted and joyful in their interaction, Gareth Cassidy particularly fine. Beverley Norris-Edmunds deserves a shout-out for the movement direction, and I hope they all survive the run intact. But Michael Hugo is truly extraordinary: perfect in every move and in speech, catching the cheerful bossiness and reckless aggressive friendliness of the man; indeed his impersonation is acknowledged by the real Neil himself as spot-on.
Nimaxtheatres.com. To 26 november