BWW Review: YOUNG MARX, Bridge Theatre
Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr's enterprise is certainly an historic one: The Bridge is London's first new wholly commercial theatre in 80 years. If its opening play isn't the same landmark work, it's nevertheless an auspicious start to a promising enterprise.
The building itself is chic but welcoming, with a refreshingly light, airy and spacious open-plan foyer-cum-bar. In the interval, you're greeted with the tantalising scent of freshly baked madeleine cakes, but practical touches impress too: water fountains with plastic cups, and - thank the theatre gods - plenty of loos.
The flexible 900-seat auditorium (think a scaled-up version of the National Theatre's Dorfman) is blessed with comfy leather seats, clear sight-lines from both stalls and galleries, and a handsome revolve - the latter getting plenty of use in this season opener.
Mark Thompson's set superbly evokes grimy, squalid 1850s Soho, where the eponymous young Marx (early thirties) is a penniless political refugee; his Dean Street digs are squashed beneath tightly packed Victorian chimney pots. We first meet him debating the value of possessions - not with great thinkers, but with the suspicious owner of a pawn shop. Throughout, he's dodging creditors, policemen and spies.
Richard Bean and Clive Coleman thoroughly embrace knockabout farce, from Marx hiding in a cupboard or up a chimney to a plethora of groan-worthy puns and mistranslations. There are pleasing strange-but-true oddities, like the fact that this was the early days of the police force, or that the Prussian official hunting Marx was actually his brother-in-law.
But the faithful reproduction of real-life episodes means the play as a whole lacks shape or clear meaning; one scene follows another because that's how it happened, rather than as part of a larger editorial strategy on the writers' part. In humanising the great man, the piece somewhat diminishes him, but to no clear purpose.
It also means some odd tonal jumps. Adding a Blackadder-esque comic layer to something like a bailiffs' visit is one thing, but continuing to trade gags while they cart off the bed needed by Marx's very sick child is rather less palatable.
As usual, the women get the worst of it: Marx's wife, driven into abject poverty, and their maid, seduced and impregnated by him, struggling to keep their home together. Though both are allowed some moments of strength, it's far easier to view this as a romp from the male perspective than from theirs.
It would be fascinating to really interrogate the idea of what we allow great men (and it's generally men) to get away with; do Marx's ideas supersede marriage, fatherhood, friendship? Does his higher purpose excuse him from acting like a decent human being day to day?
But the production doesn't feel too invested in that concept. Its Marx is a hard-drinking, unfaithful rogue, yes, but also witty and erudite, and part of a lovable bromance with Engels (they frequently break into musical hall double act patter). Of course everyone is ultimately happy to support his genius, the play argues - it gives their lives purpose.
Rory Kinnear is pretty irresistible as the endlessly procrastinating writer, who toggles between egotistical, adolescent petulance and moments of dawning horror as he considers the powerful, even fatal influence of his work. A great set-piece sees Marx illustrate the alienating qualities of capitalism and commodification via breakfast food.
As Engels, Oliver Chris is his silky opposite - suave and unruffled, except when his ever-dependent friend asks a favour too far. Their subsequent argument leads to a library brawl capped by close-up magic from Charles Darwin. Riotous fun, but symptomatic of an evening that never lingers long on conflict.
Tony Jayawardena is excellent as an avuncular doctor, as is Eben Figueiredo as a worshipful acolyte, Nicholas Burns as a prissy love rival, and Miltos Yerolemou's hot-headed French terrorist lusting after violence.
Nancy Carroll and Laura Elphinstone invest wife Jenny and maid Nym, respectively, with dignity and wry humour, plus rigorous intellect that makes them far more than domestic support for Marx.
That's presented here as the joy of collective enterprise - a dubiously rose-tinted view, given the lack of corresponding collective credit, but one in line with the happy collaborative birth of London's newest theatre.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan