Get our free email newsletter with just one click

Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre – review round-up

Rory Kinnear, Oliver Chris, Harriet and Rupert Turnbull and Nancy Carroll. Photo: Manuel Harlan Rory Kinnear, Oliver Chris, Harriet and Rupert Turnbull and Nancy Carroll in Young Marx. Photo: Manuel Harlan
by -

Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, who together ran the National Theatre for 12 years and oversaw some of the biggest theatrical smash-hits of this century, have returned to the South Bank with their new project: the 900-seat Bridge Theatre.

They’ve brought some friends with them, too. The Bridge’s debut production, Young Marx, is mostly penned by One Man, Two Guvnors playwright Richard Bean, whose CV boasts a series of successful comedies, from 2014’s Great Britain to this year’s The Hypocrite, and it stars long-time Hytner collaborator Rory Kinnear in the title role.

Co-written by Bean and Clive Coleman, and directed by Hytner himself, Young Marx dives back to 1850s London, before the political philosopher had written Das Kapital and was floundering in a smog-filled Soho sea of booze and bailiffs. This is not the bearded, furrow-browed philosophical thinker we are used to, but it is historically accurate, apparently.

So does the play get full Marx or were the critics left revolting? Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Young Marx – Marx embarks

Laura Elphinstone and Rory Kinnear. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Bean has crafted a niche for himself as Britain’s go-to theatrical farceur. How well does he and Coleman mine Marx’s meanderings for laughs here? What do they reveal about the man behind the manifesto?

Some critics see nothing to dislike. “Young Marx is a delicious blend of braininess and bounce,” writes Sam Marlowe (Times, ★★★★). “A seriously clever comedy stuffed with cheeky anachronisms and shrewd truths about sex, love, money and, of course, politics — past and present.”

“It is original, fresh, expansive and full of passion. I enjoyed every single second of it,” agrees Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage, ★★★★), while Susannah Clapp (Observer, ★★★★) admires a play with “notes of sadness, melancholy, resignation and resistance”, and Sean O’Hagan (Radio Times, ★★★★) finds it “pacy, witty and vivid.”

Most, however, reckon Bean and Coleman’s play isn’t quite up to scratch, objecting to its sense of humour, tonal inconsistency, or a lack of dramatic drive. It’s fun, they admit, but it’s flawed.

“The writers are using a recognisable template. They’ve taken a historical figure and humanised him – imagining the life he lived before he achieved fame – in this case by showing one of the key political thinkers of the 19th century behaving like a bit of a dick,” explains Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★). “What’s missing is a sense of intellectual or emotional trajectory.”

“The main problem with the play,” writes Aleks Sierz (The Arts Desk, ★★★), “is that although a lot happens – political meetings and debates, trouble with the police, visits from bailiffs, a duel, an unexpected pregnancy, an equally unexpected death, the discovery of an informer and a riot in the British Library – the main dramatic conflicts are unfocused and, despite the belly laughs, the story lacks a dynamic momentum. There’s little drive, and little excitement.”

“It’s essentially an apolitical romp through the godfather of socialism’s naughty years,” chimes Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★). “Bean and Coleman have undoubtedly done their homework, but they don’t seem to have any great point to make about Marx.”

“It’s an attempt to show us the man behind the Manifesto, but that sits at odds with the comic-strip tone,” adds Matt Trueman (Variety). “It leaves the play caught between humanising Marx and lampooning him.”

Others concur. Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★) opines that “while the play is clearly designed to humanise Marx, it undersells his ferocious activism”, Robert Gore-Langton (Daily Mail, ★★★) reckons that the “occasional, passionately serious speeches about the starving classes mix uneasily with the door-slamming, no-joke-too-low tone of the piece”, and Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★★) thinks that “the play sometimes felt a bit disconnected, between historic politics and the broad larking.”

The play “never achieves an ideal level of dramatic momentum” according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★), “lacks shape or clear meaning” according to Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★), and feels “a little baggy and directionless” according to Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★).

For Neil Norman (Express, ★★★) Young Marx’s “emotional engagement never quite gains traction”, for Connor Campbell (The Upcoming, ★★), it “drifts rather than drives forwards”, and for Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★), the whole thing is “more end-of-the-pier than end-of-capitalism.”

Young Marx – Marx larks

Rory Kinnear in Young Marx. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Bean and Coleman’s play is something of a mess then, part crowd-pleasing comedy, part episodic historical appraisal, narratively underpowered and tonally unsure. What can Hytner – who hasn’t directed since taking the reins of Bean’s Great Britain back at the National – achieve with it in his new space?

“Hytner’s production is zippy and fluid, eased along by Mark Thompson’s design, which perches a grey cut-out skyscape of chimneys above the Marx’s scruffy sitting room: like a top hat on a tramp,” reports Clapp. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen farcical devices – doors flung open on to secret conversations, bolts rhythmically clanged shut – employed to such telling psychological effect.”

“Its design is pure Dickens: all fog and pantaloons,” relates Tim Bano (Exeunt). “A big black cube in the centre of the stage rotates and doors open to reveal living rooms or pawnbrokers. It’s topped with miniature chimney stacks, smoking away, to create a darkly silhouetted skyline of Victorian London. Everything on stage looks thickly crusted in smog.”

“Hytner’s production and Mark Thompson’s design are faithful to the play’s farcical structure, with much hiding in cupboards and chasing over rooftops,” observes Billington, while Marlowe lauds the action as “ribald, riotous fun” and Hitchings labels it “populist entertainment with a gently subversive edge.”

“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,” adds Lukowski. “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.”

Some, however, see far more than farce in Hytner’s show. “There are obvious modern resonances — European turmoil, immigration and asylum — but Hytner’s production achieves something more subtle,” writes Marlowe. “It makes us see ourselves through emigre eyes.”

“What makes the piece especially timely is its adroit portrait of an open London where refugees were welcomed and where a wanted man like Marx, in flight from the wave of 1848 revolutions in Europe and mistakenly branded a terrorist, could escape arrest or extradition,” echoes Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★).

“As it goes on the play’s skin cracks a little, and it feels almost like a j’accuse for the Bridge’s audience, if not a mini-manifesto in itself,” adds Bano. “Are we the bourgeoisie that Marx is attacking? Is our economically-driven ability to sit in a swish new theatre watching a light comedy a direct result of capitalism?”

Young Marx – Marx sparks

Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris in Young Marx. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Rory Kinnear was a regular fixture on the National’s stages under Hytner, earning great acclaim for his Hamlet, his Iago, and a host of other roles. He last took to the stage in the Olivier, under Rufus Norris’ direction as MacHeath in The Threepenny Opera, but can he and Hytner recapture the old magic here?

It is, most critics concur, an absolute humdinger of a turn, Clapp calling it “a comic, zestfully physical performance, with poignant touches”, Tripney lauding Kinnear for his “lively and engaging presence”, and Taylor finding him “on glorious form here – believably both a high-powered intellectual and a greasy-maned, emotional disaster-area.”

“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” writes Swain, while Billington praises a performance that “catches very well the ambivalence of Marx, the political visionary who is also a shameless sponger and the radical dreamer haunted by self-doubt.”

Kinnear is on “up-Rory-ious form” according to Cavendish, “mercurial, maddening” according to Marlowe, and an “attractively flamboyant” mix of “scurrying anxiety and self-adoring charisma” according to Hitchings.

“Kinnear deserves maximum credit for another of his powerhouse stage performances, smoothly switching registers from high-energy slapstick clowning to epigrammatic Wildean banter to more nuanced psychodrama,” adds Stephen Dalton (Hollywood Reporter).

There’s plenty of love for his supporting cast, too, with particular praise for Oliver Chris as the young Friedrich Engels. For Crompton, he’s played with “appealing grace and easy warmth”, for Swain he’s “suave and unruffled”, for Marlowe he’s “raffish” and “lankily elegant”, and for Maxie Szalwinska (Metro, ★★★★), he’s “droll” and “dandyish.”

Young Marx – is it any good?

The Bridge’s first sally into London’s theatrical landscape is good, but not great, it seems. Kinnear and his supporting cast are on top form and Hytner directs with customary proficiency, but Bean and Coleman’s play falters, lumbered with an aimless, episodic structure, and caught between all-out comedy caper and something more significant. Young Marx is left somewhere between three and four stars.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, according to Marx. Hytner’s first stint running a theatre on the South Bank was far from the former. Let’s hope his exploits at The Bridge steer clear of the latter, too. Oh, and the loos are nice.

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.