Young Marx

Richard Bean and Clive Coleman

Bridge Theatre

From 18 October 2017 to 31 December 2017

Review by Philip Fisher

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After a long gestation period, the magnificent Bridge Theatre, brainchild of Sir Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, is finally open.

The state-of-the-art theatre is situated on the ground floor of a lavish new apartment building located right next to Tower Bridge, allowing visitors to sightsee along the Thames on their way in.

To open the 930-seat auditorium, the recently retired National Theatre supremos have invited a group of old friends to collaborate in a 2¼-hour-long anarchic comedy written by Richard Bean with Clive Coleman, which takes as its subject the youthful indiscretions of a German immigrant who subsequently threatened to bring the world to its capitalist knees.

However, Rory Kinnear plays a character who, in the mid-1850s, were he called Charles Marks (which the newly constituted Metropolitan police do) would have been seen as a lazy, dissolute and highly undesirable alien of the kind that the voting public has recently used as a good enough reason to cut the UK's ties with Europe. Utilising a set designed by Mark Thompson that primarily operates within a revolving cube, the action largely follows our anti-hero drinking, spending the family wealth uncaringly and failing to offer the kind of love and faith that his family and friends deserve.

The lovable wastrel, who has somehow washed up on Soho’s Dean Street with the family, has not one but three foils for his folly and wit.

Oliver Chris is Friedrich (The General) Engels, the son of a Manchester cotton baron but still willing to bankroll the perennially penniless political philosopher as he takes the first steps towards communist immortality and a place in the dictionary.

Two women also play a major part in the Marx story. Nancy Carroll's Jenny is his long-suffering, aristocratic Prussian wife with Scottish antecedents and mother to two sweet children.

As influential is Nym, on the surface the family's devoted maid and nanny. However, Laura Elphinstone's clear-thinking character is far more as a confidant, friend, admirer and even muse.

While we hear a good deal about his reputation as the leader of a new philosophical movement, this rarely emerges until the final scenes, where the origins of Das Kapital begin to emerge as part of a symbolically collaborative process. Before that, Young Marx comes over as more of a politicised version of Macheath as immortalised in The Beggar’s Opera and Brechtian Threepenny descendant. Indeed, without giving too much away, at one point Karl Marx in a rare moment when he isn’t fending off either bailiffs or the police somehow manages to end up duelling with pistols at dawn, hardly the behaviour of a man dedicated to overthrowing the upper classes.

As one would expect from Richard Bean, the evening is packed with a stream of very funny jokes and situations that at the very least border on the farcical. Rory Kinnear charms in the central role, while Oliver Chris, Nancy Carroll and Laura Elphinstone between them create both pathos and additional laughs. 

Richard Bean has written funnier plays and the politics tend to take second place behind the hijinks but Young Marx is most entertaining and should prove a good draw, as is a first chance to see the infinitely adaptable Bridge Theatre.

While a visit to the theatre is strongly recommended, for those that cannot make it, the performance on 7 December will be broadcast around the world via NT Live.