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Young Marx review at the Bridge Theatre, London – ‘funny, but dramatically underpowered’

Rory Kinnear and the cast of Young Marx at Bridge Theatre, London. Photo: Manual Harlen Rory Kinnear and the cast of Young Marx at Bridge Theatre, London. Photo: Manual Harlen

The Bridge Theatre – Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr’s shiny new 900-seat theatre near Tower Bridge – throws open its doors with the premiere of Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s new comedy about the early life of Karl Marx.

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.

The play is set in 1850, relatively soon after the publication of the Communist Manifesto. Having been expelled from Paris, Marx and his young family are now political refugees living in cramped conditions in Soho’s Dean Street. Money is tight and he’s reduced to hiding in cupboards and up chimneys to avoid the bailiffs.

Bean and Coleman’s play does a decent job of evoking 19th century Soho, its various immigrant communities, its pawnshops, poverty and its politics.

The first half of Young Marx is staged as a caper, with Rory Kinnear’s Marx repeatedly being bailed out by his kind and patient friend Friedrich Engels, affectionately known as the General by the Marx clan and amiably played by Oliver Chris. The play contains Bean’s usual blend of anachronism and scatology. There’s a wonderful throwaway line from one of the many police officers with whom Marx has a run-in, an actual pissing contest and a bit in which Marx discusses the boils on his arse.

Bean and Hytner worked together on One Man, Two Guvnors and their last collaboration was Great Britain in 2014, on which Coleman also consulted. Rory Kinnear is something of a Hytner regular too, having starred in four of his productions to date. This all serves to bring a whiff of the familiar to proceedings.

After an episodic but reasonably entertaining first half, the second half of Hytner’s production swerves in a different direction; it’s far more downbeat in tone. While Kinnear remains a lively and engaging presence, what’s missing is a sense of intellectual or emotional trajectory. Though the play attempts to turn them into a double act, whatever it was that made Engels so devoted to Marx, we get little sense of it here.

Designer Mark Thompson, who also worked on One Man, Two Guvnors, has placed a rotating cube on the stage that unfolds to reveal the Marx flat as well as various Soho locations. Though Nancy Carroll is underused as Marx’s wife Jenny, Laura Elphinstone brings warmth and poignancy to the role of the Marx family’s maid, known as Nym. (If nothing else, the play makes it clear how much the Marx clan loved a nickname). Even so, this is an overwhelmingly male play.

While those of a cynical bent might raise an eyebrow at the juxtaposition of the life of a revolutionary socialist with the launch of London’s newest commercial venue, what’s most notable is how dramatically underpowered this opening effort is.

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Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr's Bridge Theatre opens its doors with a polished but underpowered new comedy