By Richard Bean
The Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Fields Park, London SE1 2SD
to December 31, 2017
By Jarlath O’Connell
It’s good to report that London’s first new wholly commercial theatre in 80 years is a triumph and the play which Sir Nicholas Hytner has chosen to open it is a boisterous crowd pleaser.
Richard Bean, whose international hit One Man, Two Guvnors elevated James Corden to megastar status, is back with what constitutes a communist caper. No commedia dell’arte this time but rather a broad sitcom which tells the story of the young Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels struggling in penury in Soho in the 1850s.
Hytner’s new theatre is comfortable and welcoming with an expansive, beautifully lit lobby, great seats and sightlines and a recognition that audience comfort must, finally, be taken into consideration if you’re to win over new audiences. What’s interesting about this play is how blokey it is, the perfect vehicle to attract non-theatre goers. Purists will harrumph, but let ‘em. Rory Kinnear’s Marx, who has the manner of Private Eye editor Ian Hislop and Oliver Chris’s Friedrich Engels bring a winning blokeishness to it all which would sit perfectly on any current TV panel show. The challenge for getting an audience with that sensibility into a theatre is a great one but if they can be convinced this is not a dry history lesson, they’ll lap this up
Kinnear, now one of our A-list stars, perfectly captures the roguish quality of this Marx, a young roué who, when he isn’t boozing or pawning his wife’s heirlooms or hiding in cupboards from bailiffs, is making the life of his devoted wife Jenny a misery. Marx has writer’s block, there is no money coming in, he’s contemplating a job on the railways and to top it all he gets their other housemate, the devoted maid, Nym, pregnant. Without the moral, practical and financial support of the more financially secure Engels they would starve. They are part of a group of political exiles from Germany who have refugee status but who are constantly spied upon and in fear of the law.
It’s the contrast between the shabby reality of his existence and the loftiness of his ideals which underscore the comedy but Bean never uses this as a chance for a reactionary cheap shot. Marx’s biographer Francis Wheen has vouched for the historical accuracy, with one or two dramatic liberties. Bean ends up humanising the man and reminding us how idealistic struggles are always with us and are not just the subject of history books.
Bean writes the play in a totally modern idiom, typically poking fun, anachronistically, at the London coppers and their procedures. The dialogue (they speak in German accents only when addressing the English), the behaviour and the comic set ups are all contemporary and, although this needs getting used to, it does remind us that these were a bunch of radical young people, not fusty academics buried in books. There are also brief, witty, Music Hall songs which add to the gaiety. One scene which Bean does take too far though is an unlikely all-out brawl in the British Museum Reading Room.
Hytner’s direction is characteristically fluid and detailed throughout and the pace never sags. He elicits great performances from the principals. Kinnear has never been more at ease and Oliver Chris is totally engaging as a dashing Engels, pulling off the difficult task of making a good man appear dramatically interesting. Nancy Carroll as Jenny and Laura Elphinstone as Nym give us two sturdily modern women and the latter has razor sharp comic timing. The aristocratic Jenny, worn out from penury and looking after a sick child, is always on the verge of deserting Marx, for which you really wouldn’t blame her.
Mark Thompson’s settings are simple but brilliant and are lit with often painterly eloquence by Mark Henderson.
Young Marx will be broadcast live from The Bridge theatre to cinemas worldwide on Thu 7 December. Check out www.ntlive.com for venues.