JNeil Baldwin’s unlikely story gets even more unlikely. Who else among us could expect to spend their 76th birthday watching their life unfold at the local theater? Yet here Baldwin is at the New Vic, waving gracefully from the top row as the actors salute.
And they are actors in the plural – it takes seven to bring this extraordinary tale to life, all taking on the role of a man who, through a combination of charm and positive thinking, has befriended everything the world, from circus legend Charlie Cairoli to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
“As always with Neil, his exact status was unclear,” says one of the many Baldwins as they try to make sense of his story. Indeed, the staging oscillates on the borders of the surreal. There’s something dreamlike about the way Baldwin becomes a welcoming party for freshmen at Keele University, including Malcolm Clarke who co-wrote the book the show is based on. That he eventually received an honorary degree is no less likely than his stint as a circus clown or his job as the mascot of Stoke City Football Club.
In her scholarly adaptation — co-written, naturally, with Baldwin himself — director Theresa Heskins extends the line of improbability to include the 2014 release of Marvelous starring Toby Jones and, indeed, directing that stage production. Among the many Baldwins in this free-wheeling show, Michael Hugo plays the “real Neil,” shaping the story and commenting on the performances as they go.
Set against an open set by Lis Evans, defined by clever lighting by Daniella Beattie, the staging in the round speaks of community and possibility. Community, because it’s a mostly local story (the man sitting next to me remembers Baldwin judging a cake competition) and possibility, because it’s all up for grabs, including actor Gareth’s many accents Cassidy.
Perhaps the production loves its own theatrics a bit too much, but its playful tone is infectious. Amid the fun and games, you hardly notice the questions it raises about our treatment of people with learning disabilities. It’s a story of struggle as well as an unlikely achievement.