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Theatre review: Young Marx

John Nathan enjoys a night at London's newest theatre

The Bridge Theatre

    l-r Rory Kinnear (Karl Marx), Oliver Chris (Friedrich Engels)
    l-r Rory Kinnear (Karl Marx), Oliver Chris (Friedrich Engels) Photo: Manuel Harlan

    Nicholas Hytner must be proud. His new 900 seat theatre has an informal elegance about it and feels as welcoming as he made the National, just a few bridges upriver from Tower Bridge which overlooks his new playhouse.

    A generous, light-filled foyer leads to a partly subterranean but surprisingly high auditorium. It smells as new as it looks. The colour scheme is black and tan, the stage both large and intimate and on the evidence of this inaugural show it has none of the problems of the National’s cavernous Olivier and Lyttelton stages which can be difficult for a production to fill and have intimidated many a playwright.

    The Bridge Theatre feels like a place built for ambition. It’s early days but it also has an air of wealthy privilege about it, an impression bolstered by the neighbours, one of The Ivy restaurant’s outposts. Above are new riverside flats that, according to the developers, (who collaborated with Hytner and his London Theatre Company partner Nick Starr on the Bridge’s design) is intended to provide a “five star living experience”. I don’t say this to sneer. Rich people deserve good theatre too. And anyway tickets are £15 - £65 which is pretty good value considering that the sight lines and distance to the stage, which can be completely reconfigured, keep you close to the action no matter where you sit.

    Still, the most vibrant theatres are inclusive, diverse places and it’ll be interesting to see if having blazed that trail for increased access with the Travelex ticket scheme at the National, Hytner’s new theatre can be commercially successful and bridge some of society’s divisions, not just with with ticket prices (there’s no state subsidy) but with its choice of plays.

    His first production centres on a man who sought to end social division, at least of the class kind. But being written by Richard Bean and comedy writer Clive Coleman, Young Marx is no humourless history lesson. Rather it is the story of a German “penniless Jew”, played by Rory Kinnear as a man saturated with an alcohol-fuelled, nervous energy, living in 1850s Soho. He and the other half of the world’s most radical duo, Friedrich Engels (Oliver Chris) plot a world of social justice when not joshing as a music hall double act.

    It’s a story largely told with knockabout irreverence. Mark Thompson’s revolving set is of a soot-coloured London, crowned with an array of smoking chimneys. For plot, the authors take their cue from real events. There are clandestine meetings with international revolutionaries. And much is made of the young Marx’s lifestyle as hard-drinking philanderer and his betrayal of long-suffering aristocratic German wife (a poised and frequently enraged Nancy Caroll).

    The jokes are top drawer. Yet the comedy, including a punch-up in the British Library, often gives way to passages that are genuinely moving. These chiefly centre on Marx’s inability to fight poverty while protecting his family from it. One or two speeches delivered by Marx, and Chris’s good-natured Engels are truly stirring. Bean and Coleman would make great political speech writers. Their play’s trick is that it generates sympathy for their cause but not much for the movement it became.

    Meanwhile, Hytner’s direction seamlessly negotiates all these changes of speed and tone, as does Kinnear whose Marx displays the tenderness of a humanitarian and the gob-smacking selfishness of a man more loyal to his cause and vices than his family. Yet there is a distracting, nagging need to reconcile this version of Marx with the real thing.You just can’t. It may be that the strain of humour, the kind in which period characters respond to their world with modern sarcasm and irony, works best with fiction such as Blackadder or Hytner and Bean’s biggest hit together, One Man, Two Guvnors. So while you may well leave this beautiful new theatre knowing more about Marx’s early life than when you went in, I doubt you’ll feel any closer to the man.