Young Marx at The Bridge Theatre, London
Here we have not just a new play to consider, but a whole new theatre. The Bridge Theatre is the brainchild of Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner, formerly of the National Theatre just along the Thames. It describes itself as ‘a commercial venture, but one with a mission’, which certainly sounds highly promising. In their programme note, they also say they’ve ‘tried to imagine what a 21st-century theatre could and should be like’. Does it work? Well, I am pleased to report that yes, it does.
The airy foyer makes good use of its views over to Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, but would be pleasant even without the showy neighbours. I especially liked the hundreds of bulbs with chiffon drapery which hang from the ceiling (despite the husband’s comment that they looked like ladies’ knickers…). There are lots of ladies’ toilets (hallelujah!) and plentiful water fountains, all supplied with plastic cups, to combat the Curse of the Coughing Customer. The sightlines in the auditorium are good.
Of course, nowhere is perfect. I can’t remember if I was feeling particularly poor or being unusually sensible when I booked these seats, but I eschewed my normal theatre ticket extravagance for some (relatively) cheap seats at the side of the first gallery. These feel narrower than others (we were early, we tried a few others out), and require quite a lot of wriggling past other patrons to get into, and out of again at the interval (Incidentally, who are these people who stay in their seats throughout the interval? Even if you have better bladder capacity than me (not hard, granted) surely you want to stretch your legs? Have a drink? Not have people like me fall over your feet twice within 20 minutes?). The other problem is that these seats felt like they hadn’t been screwed down as well as they could have been – there were some issues with squeaking and wobbling. But, I must admit the view of the stage was remarkably good.
One other thing to add – one of the Bridge’s pre-opening selling points was the availability of freshly-baked madeleines in the interval. Purely in the interests of journalistic research, we tried some. I am happy to report that they are delicious.
Of course, however lovely the theatre, it is what happens on stage that should really matter. Fortunately, this works too. The play – by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman – involves the exploits of Karl Marx as a young man, living a Bohemian lifestyle in London, long before he became the sombre bearded philosopher of popular imagination.
Marx is played – as brilliantly as you would expect – by Rory Kinnear, who not only has great comic timing, but captures all of the layers of Marx’s personality – not just his intelligence and fecklessness, but also the charisma that built him a following. He has a great foil in Oliver Chris’ Engels, with whom he forms something not unlike a music hall double act, with their repeated refrains of “Marx and Engels,” “Engels and Marx”. This could turn into an irritating ‘bromance’ but doesn’t, thanks to Engels’ willingness to call Marx out. Chris has a great speech about the horrors of the conditions he has witnessed amongst the poor of England, and why the world needs Marx’s work.
There are also excellent performances from the play’s two female characters – Nancy Carroll as his long-suffering wife Jenny, and Laura Elphinstone as no-nonsense (except when it comes to Marx himself) housekeeper Nym. I’d have liked to have seen them and their relationship given more stage time.
This is a very funny play, which is at its best when it’s at its most knowing – whether about the unlikeliness of a revolution which would bring Marxist government to Russia, or having fun with the then newly-formed police force. This latter features a line from a policeman promising a lack of violence because “I’ve been on a course” – cue huge laugh. Mark Thompson’s clever, evocative set, complete with smoking chimneys, transforms itself into a variety of locations, from the Marx family’s small Soho flat to the reading room of the British Museum. My only criticism might be that the whole thing feel curiously filmic, and perhaps didn’t have the effect it might have done as a result.
But that’s a minor quibble – between them Young Marx and the Bridge Theatre provided an excellent afternoon, madeleines and all.
Young Marx is at the Bridge Theatre until 31st December, and will be broadcast live to cinemas on Thursday 7th December: https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/