Bridge Theatre, 1st November 2017
Let me add to the chorus of theatre lovers telling you how wonderful the new Bridge Theatre is. Cracking location by the river (Thames obvs) with a view of Tower Bridge. Wide open foyer space with a long bar for those who fancy a tipple. Pretty comfy seats in the auditorium with, what seemed to me, great sight-lines from wherever you choose to perch. More urinals in the gents than you could shake a stick at. (I appreciate this disclosure is somewhat unsavoury but theatre loos matter). All in all a mighty fine addition to the London culturescape.
Nick Hytner and co-founder Nick Starr have kicked off with an ambitious season which, from the sound of the plays in the pipeline, is set to continue. There were high hopes for this production of Young Marx, and, by and large, they have been realised. The last time co-writers, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman came together with Mr Hytner as director was for Great Britain, which went down pretty well. (I failed to get through it though had a pretty good excuse for leaving). And, of course Mr Hytner and Mr Bean had a moderate success in the past at the NT with a little comedy entitled One Man, Two Guvnors.
Young Mark is no One Man, Two Guvnors, that would have been too much to hope for, but it is still a very entertaining romp through the life of the young Karl Marx and his compatriot Friedrich Engels. Messrs Bean and Coleman don’t stint on the comedy, visual and oral, and the whole does come across as a series of vignettes with no grand dramatic arc, but it is still well worth the entrance fee. There are plenty of tickets left at prices comparable to the old workhorses of the West End, but for a better play in far more comfortable surroundings.
Rory Kinnear plays the eponymous genius. Now on his day, his Iago in Mr Hytner’s NT Othello in 2013 was about as good as stage acting gets, Mr Kinnear is peerless. Yet recent outings have been a little underpowered, the Trial at the Young Vic and his Macheath in the NT Threepenny Opera. He is back on fine form here. Marx, before bessie Engels went back to his Dad’s Manchester factory and provided the financial security of a stipend, was notoriously impecunious. This, together with his fondness for an ale, provides the backbone of the humour. We see him pawning family heirlooms, dodging creditors and German spies, evading the nascent Old Bill (there is a nice line in copper gags) and arguing with the other emigre revolutionaries that populated 1850s Soho. We also see the goading of his long suffering aristocratic wife Jenny and the overly close relationship with maid Nym. We see Marx as doting father and as inspiring rhetorician. Most of all though we see the close, and ultimately world-changing, friendship with Engels. Our Fred was no mean writer and thinker himself but he devoted his life to what he say as the superior intellect of big Karl. Marx must have wound him up something rotten in these early years but the mutual love and respect (“Marx and Engels, Engels and Marx” like some musical hall duet) is there on the stage.
Oliver Chris as the raffish Engels is the equal of Rory Kinnear’s more estuarine Marx. Nancy Carol’s desperate Jenny and Laura Elphinstone’s loyal Nym are the equal of the chaps both dramatically and intellectually which is a fine touch. The rest of the cast is bang on the money. Mr Hytner has wheeled out the A list for the set, Mark Thompson, lighting, Mark Henderson, sound, Paul Arditti, and music, Grant Olding. That’s why the production looks and sounds great. Beneath a silhouetted panorama of the London cityscape is a giant brick box, a brick building almost, which revolves to supply exterior and interior scenes, notably the cramped Marx household (just two rooms), upstairs in the the Red Lion and the reading room of the British Library. At one point we are transported to a frosty morning on Hampstead Heath as Marx duels with rival August von Willich (Nicholas Burns). The lighting is excellent.
So, all in all, this is a very superior production. As you might expect Mr Hytner’s direction is as energetic as the text of Messrs Bean and Colman. The gags come thick and fast, including some well wrought plays on Marxian concepts such as use/exchange value, alienation, capital accumulation, dialectical materialism and the like. Sometimes the humour is a little obvious, a bit Carry On if you like, but I think this can be forgiven. The farce elements are never overdone, the fight scenes stay the right side of slapstick. The whole thing is a little episodic, though to be fair these episodes from Marx’s life in London, which have been little embellished, are sufficiently entertaining to justify inclusion, and the lurch to tragedy near the end is a bit disconcerting, though again would have been hard to leave out. It might have been nice to have a couple more serious monologues from Marx and Engels, to create a little more message, though the scene where Engels lectures Marx on the plight of Manchester factory workers is arresting.
Minor quibbles though. This is a rollicking debut for the Bridge venture. I cannot wait for the forthcoming Julius Caesar. Nick Hytner directing again. Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, David Morrissey and David Calder in the lead roles. And for 25 quid you can be one of the citizens in this promenade production. Sounds brilliant.