Young Marx- Bridge Theatre

A review of two halves, as I can’t be given a shiny new theatre to poke at without reviewing that too….
Everyone loves a new toy to play with…and The Bridge Theatre is a lovely new toy for theatreland. Firstly, it’s location is spectacular- the views of London are glorious and next summer it will make for many a delightful pre-theatre drink there. The location also is easily accessible by Tube and Bus (though I took the slow path and a walk along the South Bank). The building itself is light and airy, the bar area offering lots of room for sitting or loitering and with the space to ‘overspill’ outside on a nice day it makes a nice change from our obviously more ‘snug’ older buildings. The bar itself though I didn’t sample it, seemed to have an array of offerings, including some delicious looking cakes. I do love a good cake so I’ll be back for those. Another thing theatre-nerds like is a good toilet analysis. Well done Bridge Theatre. Firstly for Gender neutral signage, secondly for an ‘in’ and ‘out’ door system (even if that was challenging some patrons) and for toilets, so many toilets- more casual theatre-goers may not quite understand the joy this brings, but what joy it does. Also bonus points for water fountains in the foyers.
The auditorium itself is fantastic- it feels far more intimate than it’s 900 ish seats (depending on configuration) and the fact it’s a space that can be re-arranged to fit the production is truly exciting to have in London. The seats themselves are comfortable with nice leg room, and the restricted view £15 seat I sat in (A1 Lower Gallery) was a great bargain. The only issue was having to clamour over about 25 people to get there. The matinee audience of a certain age was not happy about this with one telling my neighbour she shouldn’t be going out (it was the interval!) and another asking “How I got out?” (same way I’m getting in dear).  But as I said to the particularly rude lady who didn’t want to let me in…I didn’t build the place. Overall though, a fantastic auditorium and I’m excited to see what it does next.
I admit it was something of a miracle I made it there, as curious as I was about the building I was…less than curious about the play. Let’s just say I’m in a minority group when it comes to Bean’s best-known work ‘One Man Two Guvnors’ and indeed I overheard a woman at the interval bitterly disappointed that it wasn’t a ‘Proper Farce’ (Capitals implied). I on the other hand was most relieved. 
Young Marx is a witty, sweet romp through the lives of Marx and Engls. Unexpectedly moving as well as heart-warming Richard Bean and Clive Coleman have delivered an attempt to demystify the icon and bring him to life. With the help of a dynamic performance from Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris as a great comedic foil, and something of an emotional root in the initial chaos. 
Act 1 it’s fair to say veers towards face, with Police chases and hiding places and set-ups that stay on just the right side of ludicrous. But Bean/Cole balance the farce and visual gags with a witty patter and hints of a more serious undertone. We meet Marx struggling and penniless in Soho, where he shares rooms with his wife, two children and a maid. Unable to convince the Pawnbroker he really did marry Aristocracy “It was a traditional Prussian affair – military uniforms, guard of honour, firing squad.” He’s fleeing the law, creditors and a series of spies working on behalf of the Government. For Marx and his family are refugees who sought asylum in England and allegedly, so he can write.
Those looking for a heavy dose of his politics will be disappointed- and somewhat missing the point. Bean/Cole are unravelling the man- or indeed men with Engels as well- and showing the human side of the politics. We do get glimpses, from meetings to the occasional line of political genius spouted by Marx (which of course he isn’t writing down). But the play focuses on the circumstances that led to building the Marx we know. And yes it’s slightly farcical, and yes there are more than a few cock jokes (and bottom related humour). And yes, there may or may not be a question of who ‘Fucked the Maid’ several times over (the question and the act). But it all adds up to a charming, entertaining picture of domestic life with Marx (and Engels).
Act 2 is a more serious affair. Starting with a duel, it confronts across many themes the real mortality of life in 19th Century London. A comment perhaps on the academic existence removed from it that Marx is seemingly living. Already stripped back from the earlier farce and bigger references to Germany, the party and Revolution, it becomes a wholly more domestic affair. And when mortality and tragedy strike Marx reassess his stance, and we’re left with an emotional yet ultimately heart-warming portrait of the Revolutionary as a young man.
It’s a slickly put together production that begins to show off what The Bridge might do. On Mark Thompson’s revolving set that is primarily the Marx flat in Dean Street, it becomes a Police Station, a variety of pubs and the London streets. The top decorated with an array of chimneys does a good job of indicating the world beyond, while the inside is a cosy an claustrophobic flat. Music by Grant Olding gives a contemporary edge to the play with a thumping rocky underscore that matches the play’s quick-fire pace.
It is the cast that are the heart of it – and quite the cast has been assembled. Kinnear is excellent in the title role- his gift for comedy lends itself to both the physical elements and the witty delivery-and gives the second act the emotional weight it needs. Equally deserving of praise, and allowing Kinnear to do what he does so well, is Oliver Chris as Engels. He gets arguably the better lines, crisp one liners in response to Marx- or more often undercutting him. But he’s also the emotional heart of much of the play- be it steering Marx to where he needs to be, with often brutal honesty or being simply a window to the wider world. He’s warm and caring in the role and there’s a real sense of the friendship that ultimately drives the story. On top of that a pair of leads who can move from cock jokes to political testimony to emotional moments, via a visual gay and probably back to a cock joke again, are worth watching. Equally so however are the female duo in the play – Nancy Carroll and Laura Elphinstone as Jenny and Nym.  Providing an emotional backbone to the men’s early frolics, they are both far more than just foils for jokes, or a means to the narrative. Their friendship comes through in their excellent chemistry and both deliver moments of comedy as well-if not better than the showier male roles. The entire cast is in fact what lifts this play up a level- it’s a lovely piece of ensemble work and that drives the play.  

And the politics are there, in asides and comments on the state of the nation. In Marx’s slightly drunken ramblings. And a dig about how Christmas will be a weeklong affair before we know it. Though the politics are subtle, they are there, and it slowly rises towards the finale and there’s a hint of revolution around it. Teased through are elements of how much the 19th Century changed things from basic rights for workers, better labour laws, child labour laws, social spending by government, rise of the unions and the Labour Party. We see none of this come to fruition in this glimpse of Marx’s life, but there’s a real sense of the play and the audience wanting to cheer him on to get to that point.
And though the politics are slight, they are effective. We see the rise of the Marx we know and love or hate depending on your perspective. And you have to wonder, who is the play addressing- those who would rally and stand with Marx, or is it accusing the (presumably) fairly bourgeois crowd likely to inhabit the Bridge? But more importantly we get a glimpse of why he’s doing it. Engels here does the accusing, as he relays to Marx what he has seen in Manchester- the poverty, the suffering the humanity of the situation Marx is claiming to try and put right without seeing it first himself. Engels grounds Marx in what he is trying to achieve by pushing him, an challenging him to go beyond what he has yet done.
It’s in part a play about rising to the challenge of your destiny. We know that Marx succeeds but at this point a 32-year-old penniless writer, who currently can’t sit down to write (and not just because of the boils) it all seems a bit distant to Marx. He’s contemplating taking a job as a rail clerk to pay the bills, but as guilt-ridden he is about the conditions his family lives in something in him holds him back. It’s in part a lesson in keeping on the path, Marx doubts himself, but Engels tells him; “I write down what I see. I’m a beta-plus. You’re an alpha, a bona fide genius, you prick.” And at a point when Marx himself can’t see what he can be his friend keeps him on the path. And that’s the joy of the piece, it’s meant to be slight on politics because Marx hasn’t got there yet. It’s a play about family, friendship and yes genius. But more about how the former allowed the latter to get there (once his boils subsided). 
Richard Bean was until 24 hours ago on my short list of playwrights getting a piece of my mind if I was ever trapped in a lift with them. However, everyone deserves a second chance. And Bean, after being thoroughly charmed by Young Marx, you’re off the list. 

 At the Bridge, London, until 31 December. Box office: 0843-208 1846. To be broadcast on National Theatre Live on 7 December.

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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