Julian Eaves reviews Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre on London’s Southbank and finds much to recommend.
The Bridge Theatre,
27th October 2017
Everyone is very excited to welcome a new theatre to London’s booming entertainments landscape, the 900-seater venue now looming large betwixt Tower Bridge and City Hall. And what better way could there be to inaugurate it than with a new play? Richard Bean and Clive Coleman give us almost that in their knock-about comedy scaffolded out of a little celebrated episode in the life of Karl Marx, his impecunious residence in Soho in 1850, while genning up on the reading material available at the British Museum and dodging his many creditors. The tone is light, the laughs – expertly placed and flawlessly executed by a quality cast of 17 – come thick and fast, and the mood of gaiety and effervescent wit fairly shouts joyous tidings of the new theatrical birth. It is an act of some daring, and of an intellectual canniness worthy of a Tom Stoppard, to make such a bright, light comedy out of the ‘early years’ of one of philosophical economics’ stodgiest prophets. Yet, Bean and Coleman don’t put a foot wrong. Briskly plotted, dizzily paced with doors flying shut and open with split-second timing, revealing and concealing the players with all the aplomb of a delicious Deuxieme Empire farce, the play is a racy, gallivanting romp, making the earnest lead a figure of fun.
But you would never know that to look at it. Mark Thompson’s design, gorgeously monochrome and solid, shot through with cold light from Mark Henderson, seems to be offering us nothing short of the solemn gravity of Gorky’s ‘Lower Depths’. Everyone wears drab outfits of black, brown or yellowed cotton, a few sticks of pathetic furniture are hauled away by grim bailiffs, there is even a wintry duel on a bleak, leafless Hampstead Heath. The visual language of the production seems as dedicated to immersing us in horrible urban deprivation every bit as much as the dialogue is determined to do the precise opposite. This makes for an interesting, but ultimately bewildering clash. Exactly what kind of a world are we in? It is impossible to tell.
Given this fundamental cleft in the theatrical world conjoured up by this venture, the cast opt for one or the other dramatic mode – the smiling mask of comedy, or the mirthless grimace of tragedy – and every so often they’re required to leap from one pole to t’other, a perilous vault they undertake gamely, but with nothing more than technical success. For this is a work which seems to be all about the ingenuity of dramatic story-telling, for all that it strives after poetic expression, after symbolic importance, even after depth of meaning in its design concept. It is like, rather, having a stand-up comedian offer a condensed ‘The Life and Work of Karl Marx’, and then insisting that he spin out his act into two roomy hours: what works in a ten-minute slot does not, alas, carry the mood of the auditorium further than that, let alone through the whole of the playing time. The jokes, eventually, rattle hollowly and wanly, sounding more mechanical than magical, which is a shame, because they really are very literate, very elegant and very clever. Bean’s wit buzzed all over the West End and Broadway when given the bright colours and end-of-the-pier cheerfulness of ‘One Man, two Guv’nors’. There is, I fear, small chance of that happening with this production.
Of course, a little sadness must come into each life, and we get the death of a child here to – temporarily – halt the repartee; there is even an onstage funeral, complete with tiny coffin. And there is also an unmistakable feeling of being shamelessly manipulated. We don’t mind this when the result is to make us laugh, but theatre audiences rarely warm to having their more delicate emotions being toyed with in this kind of overt manner. However, when we consider that the actual substance of the drama – the utterly conventional ‘infidelity amongst the philosophising classes’ trope, with ‘the other woman’ declaring at the end of the ‘second act’, ‘I’m pregnant!’ – we are, in a way, grateful for something, anything, more substantial to grasp hold of. One stage school child down, though, there is still one to go, in the form of the slightly older, beautifully practised, piano-playing daughter, who accompanies her parents’ sparring with a little underscoring of – correct me if I’m wrong – Schumann’s ‘Kinderszenen’. How lovely. She must have been terribly well brought up to play so well. Thank heavens some things in life can still be relied on.
Mr Rory Kinnear, assuming the role of the contentious Herr Marx, also gets to dash away at the upright a few times, exhibiting his own musicality, in addition to waving around a flouncy wig of exuberant lushness. Quite where he has acquired all the mental equipment to concentrate on ideas to the extreme extent he does is anyone’s guess; the script does not trouble itself with such biographical realities – they would simply slow down the conveyor belt of laughs. Instead, he has to construct a role out of one-liners, and the runs-up to them. There is not much else to work with. He is an expert comedian, though, and the lines could not be better delivered. Playing alongside him – sometimes literally, at the piano – is Oliver Chris’s Friedrich Engels, doomed to take the role of ‘straight man’ in their double-act, a role he acquits himself in with admirable self-control. The wronged Frau Marx, Nancy Carroll, is every bit the maternal paragon one would expect, even when on the point of walking out – again – on her good-for-nothing spouse, and on the kids. She is matched, in every sense, with the live-in help, Laura Elphinstone’s Nym, a character often distinguishable from Mrs M only by her broad accent.
Around this amusingly dysfunctional menage revolve various intruders – a doctor representing medicine (Tony Jayawardena); a sergeant representing the law (Joseph Wilkins); a pawnbroker representing commerce (Duncan Wisbey); and so on. You get the idea? A parade of chapter headings from a certain well known publication from the Marx stable. The trouble with them, however, is that they never become more than that. One of the things that distinguishes Marx, for those who have taken the trouble to read him, and to read him in German (not the majority of audiences at this theatre, one would imagine), is that he was possessed of a titanic intellect that evinced itself not least in the capacity to make the most compelling music out of the German language, and to do this in prose, at that, an almost impossible task. Even very good German writers often express themselves in clunky, unappealing language. Not Marx. His works are masterpieces of focus and elegance, that fairly force the reader to turn page after page in pursuit of their narrative. This hypnotic power of his is partly present here in the personal magnetism of Mr Kinnear, but the script doesn’t even scratch the surface of his mind. We get a stern lecture from Engels about working conditions in Manchester, and then that, pretty much, is that. This play gets about as far into the brain of the inventor of the Marxist dialectic as ‘Young Edison’ did into the mind of the one who invented the lightbulb.
This production is an interesting opening shot from the two Nicholases – Hytner and Starr – who have brought this extraordinary building into existence, the first new – permanent – commercial theatre to be created in the capital in several generations. Their designers, Steve Tompkins and Roger Watts of Haworth Tompkins Architects, have done a beautiful job in making a versatile auditorium, with some pleasant foyer spaces: egress in and out of the Stalls, however, initially appears very restricted, and there was a mighty queue for the cloakroom after the performance, but perhaps these teething troubles will be overcome in due course. As for Hytner’s direction of this opening play, well, we could hardly have had a more fluid or assured exhibition of his skills. It bodes well and congratulations are deserved all round. And, if you don’t get to see it in town, you can be amongst audience in 700 different cinemas the length and breadth of the country – and indeed around this fair globe – on Thursday 7th December to get the full effect in a live broadcast.
Young Marx runs at the Bridge Theatre until 31 December 2017