Review: Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre

It’s such a relief, in these politically / financially / socially turbulent times, to find beautiful things bursting through London’s concrete. The Bridge Theatre has opened on the south-west corner of London Bridge, and let me tell you it’s great. It looks good (see: thousand of lights shining like burning paper in the main foyer), it’s well-planned (I sat at the very back for £15 and could still see everything), and I ate madeleines warm out of the oven in the interval. 10/10 would recommend. 

But that’s all icing on the cake. What The Bridge really needed for a truly successful opening is a great first play. Young Marx, brought into being by the creative team behind Richard Bean’s smash hit One Man, Two Guvnors, is just that. It’s the story - inspired by historical events, but with giant pinches of salt - of the Marx family’s time spent living in Dean Street, Soho. It chronicles the young philosopher’s journey through financial woes, family upheaval, and a quite distracting love of partying, to finally writing Das Kapital.

If politics and philosophy aren’t your thing, or if you’re anxious that you just don’t know enough about Marx to enjoy this particular play, that’s not going to be a problem. This is not a period in history I know anything about. I have a vague memory of once - all too ambitiously - trying to read Das Kapital on the tube and it probably won’t surprise you to know that I didn’t get very far. I’d fleetingly heard of Engels, Marx’s philosopher mate, but only by name. I didn’t know he’d had children. I’d never really thought about it. 

My point is that my lack of contextual knowledge didn’t mar my enjoyment of and admiration for Young Marx. There are some (well-judged and funny even to a philosophy dunce) referential jokes, but it’s pretty much a really human story of a guy with a procrastination problem and marital issues, whose duties as a father conflict with his perceived duty to the human race, and whose bromance with his best friend rivals even that between Ant and Dec. 

Rory Kinnear’s performance is, predictably, excellent. He’s full of beans and brimming with charisma, delivering his cheeky one-liners with as much aplomb as he does his rousing speeches. Oliver Chris (the fit one off of Green Wing) is the perfect partner-in-crime, always supportive, never a yes man. Together Kinnear and Chris are an explosive double-act, commanding by turn uproarious laughter and pathos-laden gasps from their rapt audience. 

It’s vital, in a semi-historical piece like this, that the pace stays snappy - the audience doesn’t want to feel like they’ve stumbled accidentally into a history class - and Young Marx nails it. The dialogue is sharp, scene changes are soundtracked by bursts of a distorted guitar riff, and Mark Thompson's set-design is pretty ingenious, involving a giant rotating structure that represents the Marx’s home, the interior of a pub, the outside wall of a church, a pawn shop, and a sprawling park. All of this together keeps the thing full of life. 

If I have one criticism (that in many ways doubles as praise), it’s that, when the lights came up for the interval, I had literally no idea where the plot was going. There had been a lot of running about, loads of hijinx, and plenty of laughs, but there wasn’t the strongest sense of narrative. I guess this is probably down to the fact of the story’s reality - real life stories rarely have a beginning, middle, and end in the way that fictional ones do. Having said that I did find it kind of exhilarating to enter into the second half with so few preconceptions, and the narrative did end up resolving in a way that was ultimately satisfying.

All in all, Young Marx is a big success. I left the theatre not only having been thoroughly entertained, but also with a sense that I should probably learn a little more about Marx (and Marxism). In a particularly rousing scene, Marx gives a speech about his conviction that capitalism will lead to a market crash (which, of course, it did), which will in turn lead the proletariat to rise up and replace the broken system with a socialist one (which, of course, we didn’t). For all the fun of the play, it’s also a pretty timely reminder of some of the ways we continue to make an absolute mess of things. It’s testament to the writing of Young Marx doesn’t teach us this through heavy-handed philosophical concepts, but through people. 

Find Anna on Twitter at @annaerichmond