Young Marx review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Rory Kinnear shines as the Bridge opens with this irreverent historical comedy

You don’t need a black belt in satire to detect a certain irony to the fact that Nicholas Hytner’s posh new theatre the Bridge is kicking off its life with a comedy about noted Marxist Karl Marx.

But it’s possible to labour the point. Sure, the Bridge is literally next door to a literal branch of the literal Ivy restaurant. And yes, the signature snack is a plate of freshly-baked interval madeleines. But it’s not dementedly fancy inside – the vibe is kind of upmarket arts centre – and some impressive feats of cantileverage mean the 900-seater is impressively egalitarian, with the £15 bottom price getting you a very decent view.

Potentially more offensive to ardent communists will be Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s play ‘Young Marx’, in which Rory Kinnear portrays the iconic philosopher as a shambolic piss artist. Stumbling drunkenly though the streets of Victorian Soho, he is a walking distaster, totally reliant on the continued goodwill of his wife Jenny von Westphalen (Nancy Carroll) and BFF Friedrich Engels (Oliver Chris).

Bean and Coleman are fairly sympathetic to Marxism, and during his occasional moments of lucidity Kinnear get some rather inspiring speeches. But it’s essentially an apolitical romp through the godfather of socialism’s naughty years.

Director Hytner has assembled something of a dream team, with Kinnear heading up a crack squad of familiar NT faces. It’s brilliantly cast and performed, with Kinnear tearing up the stage a treat as the selfish, self-absorbed, yet irresistibly plaintive and childlike Marx.

A couple of scenes are genuinely sublime: a massive ruck between Marx, Engels and the entire British Museum Reading Room; Marx being hysterically ungrateful after Engels reluctantly agrees to take responsibility for his lovechild with maid Nym (Laura Elphinstone). Hytner directs it all at a deft clip, the action taking place on Mark Thompson’s impressive revolving Victorian slum set, the brisk scenes intercut with stabs of rock guitar.

It is, no question, an excellent night’s entertainment. But it’s not a classic. The plot is rambling, packed with amusing titbits, but shapeless in and of itself (essentially it’s about Marx procrastinating rather than writing ‘Das Kapital’). Though the programme notes heave with contextualising detail, the play itself offers little information on Marx and Engels beyond this particular period (their reasons for being in England are only tangentially alluded to). Bean and Coleman have undoubtedly done their homework, but they don’t seem to have any great point to make about Marx. Squint hard and you could possibly argue that it’s playing with the idea of history repeating as farce, but there’s a slightly generic quality  – it’s Richard Bean doing a Victorian comedy, and it might not have been so different if it was, say, ‘Young Dickens’.

It's not the new ‘One Man,Two Guvnors’, but it doesn’t really have to be. It’s a big, confident, entertaining signifier that Hytner is back and the Bridge is open for business. It’s opium for the masses – but it’s good opium.

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