Young Marx

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green reviews Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s new play Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre.

Young Marx

I had been looking forward to Richard Bean (One Man, Two Guvnors) and Clive Coleman’s new play Young Marx, which kicks off the inaugural season at the 900-seat Bridge Theatre (One Tower Bridge, SE1), run by ex-National Theatre supremo Nicholas Hytner, who also directs, and his long-term associate Nick Starr, but in the event it fails to live up to expectations.

It is 1850, relatively soon after the publication of the Communist Manifesto. Having been expelled from Paris, Karl Marx and his young family are now political refugees living in poverty in Soho’s Dean Street. Marx is uniquely intelligent but unable to support his family with his ideologies and is reduced to hiding in cupboards and up chimneys to evade creditors and bailiffs and, as he is bothered by boils on his behind, has to write standing up. However, his friend Friedrich Engels is by his side, rallying the troops to the Marxist cause while his wife and children are at home suffering the effects of Marx’s lack of focus. Marx must learn to stay away from the pubs of Tottenham Court Road and Engels must find a way to bring his friend back to reality, while those around him are forced to deal with the output of their raucous behaviour.

This is a play which never quite achieves the right balance between farcical comedy and drama tinged with tragedy, and contains Bean’s usual blend of anachronisms and scatology. Although grounded in fact, it takes some amusing liberties with detail. The first half is staged as a caper, with Marx repeatedly being bailed out by Engels, affectionately known as The General, while the second half moves in a different direction, being more downbeat in tone. Pungent, somewhat toe-curling, jokes combine with scenes of feverish political debate. As a result, the story fails to strike a satisfying level of dramatic momentum and the whole production seems underpowered.

Designer Mark Thompson has placed a rotating cube on the stage that unfolds to reveal the Marx’s flat as well as various Soho locations, not to mention an early-morning duel on Hampstead Heath.

A bearded and bewigged Rory Kinnear manages to capture the ambivalence of Marx, his combination of intellectual brilliance, invective, satiric wit and child-like emotional illiteracy, a radical dreamer haunted by self-doubt. Oliver Chris brings a mixture of sarcasm and jovial charm to the role of Engels, while Nancy Carroll is effective, if underused, as Marx’s put-upon wife Jenny. Laura Elphinstone as the tragically devoted maid Nym and Tony Jayawardena as a bumptious quack doctor provide good support.

Young Marx

Showing at the Bridge Theatre until 7 December 2017

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