Tuesday 31 October 2017

Theatre review: Young Marx

Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr finally unveil what they've been working on since they left the National - the Bridge Theatre, billed as the first new-built commerical theatre in London in 80 years, with a promotional drive that seems to focus much more on baked goods than you would usually expect (they're trying to make interval madeleines A Thing.) Who knows how many unused shells of theatres are knocking around London basements at the moment thanks to the tax breaks luxury developments get for including a community arts space* - Hytner and Starr picked one next to Tower Bridge to occupy and flesh out, with what looks like a very effective design: Front-of-House is a bit Expensive Hotel but the auditorium has a touch of the RST about it, with three galleries above the stalls, and what look like good sightlines from most seats and a comparatively intimate feel. The opening three productions are designed to showcase the three possible seating configurations, starting with end-on.

Opening a commercial venture by harking back to one of his biggest commercial successes at the National, Young Marx sells itself on reuniting the creative team - and some of the stars, but fortunately not that one - from One Man, Two Guvnors in another period farce.

Instead of an existing fictional plot, though, Richard Bean, this time co-writing with Clive Coleman, mines true, if unlikely-sounding historical fact. Namely that Karl Marx (Rory Kinnear) and Friedrich Engels (Oliver Chris) were based in London in the 1850s, where the former procrastinated over writing Das Kapital while running away from numerous creditors, pawning his wife's inheritance to make ends meet. The story focuses on the hyperactive Marx making enemies even within his own revolutionary cell, which he thinks includes a traitor, for which he suspects August von Willich (Nicholas Burns.)

He's no more in control of his home life, where his marriage to Jenny (Nancy Carroll) is falling apart, while Dr Schmidt (Tony Jayawardena) is ill-equipped to cure their son of what is clearly a terminal case of Period Drama Cough. In a design that has hints of all three spaces Hytner worked in at the National, Mark Thompson creates a beautifully grungy set that's like a smaller version of what you might see in the Olivier: A large building on a revolve, turning to expose new rooms and changing Soho alleyways, topped by a London skyline billowing smoke.

It looks great and Kinnear leads the cast with great energy, climbing up walls and chimneys, and regularly hiding in a cupboard whenever there's a knock at the door. He needs this amount of comic energy to keep the audience on-side, as his Marx is deeply unsympathetic: Quite apart from stealing from his wife and scrounging from his best friend he's having an affair with the maid Nym (Laura Elphinstone,) and when he gets her pregnant makes Engels claim to be the father. Carroll offers strong support and a touch of real heartbreak as Jenny, and Chris a heart to contrast with Marx's fire as Engels. Eben Figueiredo is lovable as the earnest and put-upon Konrad Schramm, and Duncan Wisbey has a memorable cameo as another of Victorian London's most influential thinkers.

And yet, and perhaps not surprisingly for a Richard Bean play, it feels soulless. On the one hand it sometimes tries too desperately for laughs - a French terrorist is a cliché straight out of 'Allo 'Allo, giving Miltos Yerolemou very little to work with other than "'ow you say?" On the other the comedy and pathos jar with each other, neither winning out. Most of all, I rarely felt like the fact that this is Karl Marx mattered; he regularly goes off on rants about his beliefs but the story doesn't tie in much with them. Only in a funeral scene, where he asks the gravedigger to join the mourners because her effort matters, do we see the man and the politics truly come together dramatically. It's a heart I could have done with much more of, the entertaining efforts of cast and creatives not quite enough to draw me in most of the time.

Young Marx by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman is booking until the 31st of December at the Bridge Theatre (3 Potters Fields Park, next to the South end of Tower Bridge.)

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Photo credit? Manuel Harlan.

*as far as I can tell there's no provision for these arts spaces to actually be used, which seems a pretty major loophole and the reason you keep hearing about brand new theatre spaces gathering dust; the King's Head is relocating to another of them soon.

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