Rory Kinnear, Oliver Chris and Nancy Carroll. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Young Marx by Richard Bean – The Bridge Theatre, London SE1
Any review of Richard Bean’s new play, Young Marx, can’t help getting distracted by the shiny new theatre it opens. The Bridge Theatre is a serious statement of intent: a new build, 900-seat venue at Tower Bridge, run by Nicholas Hytner fresh from his stint as everyone’s favourite National Theatre director. It seems to be the first new London theatre on this scale since before the Second World War. Venture capital funded, and part of the developer-owned, security patrolled Potter’s Fields development, the Bridge Theatre is as representative of London in the 2010s as the publicly funded and owned National was of its 1970s version.
Nevertheless, it is an exciting addition to the London theatre scene. Hytner and Nick Starr have dealt beautifully with details that frequently confound theatre management. Food and drink is provided by St John, who have instantly created the best theatre bar in town and a mini-sensation with their half-time madeleines. Programmes are satisfying inspired by the National Theatre’s classic early format. Architects Haworth Tompkins, presumably having learned from their Young Vic refurbishment, have baffled the foyer acoustics so everyone can hear themselves talk. And the auditorium goes some, but not all of the way, down the thrust stage route creating generous sightlines, with only marginal annoyance from the lighting rig cutting across the top of the set from the very back row.
The play is pretty entertaining too, but not the comic masterpiece that would have really topped things off for Hytner. Richard Bean has adapted Karl Marx’s rackety, poverty-stricken years living in Soho and writing Das Kapital into a genial farce. Centre stage throughout, Rory Kinnear’s performance as Marx is a reminder of how indispensable he has become to the British stage. With a tendency to sound more and more like Simon Russell Beale, Kinnear balances rooftop escapes from the law with the funeral of his young son, connecting divergent moods through powerful ability to seem entirely credible in any role.
Overall, however, Bean’s play is curiously old-fashioned. It is not clear what makes a comedy about Marx the most important work to stage right now, but it’s certainly a handy vehicle for sex jokes and a lot of hiding in cupboards. Some ideas are very funny, including running jokes about the literal translation of French phrases and about the police (“Why didn’t you hit me?” “I’ve been on a course.”) Nancy Carroll, as Marx’s aristocratic German wife, Jenny, Laura Elphinstone as family friend Nym and Oliver Chris as Friedrich Engels, Karl’s partner in crime, are all highly watchable. Mark Thompson’s inside/outside rotating tenement set is well detailed. However, it is hard to escape the feeling that Young Marx, while undeniably a well-cast, well-produced piece, is no more than the sum of its parts. The Bridge Theatre’s programming policy is not yet clear, but we can surely look forward to evenings here with more to offer than harmless entertainment.