To say that expectations were high for the opening of London’s newest theatre, the Bridge, can only be described as an understatement. The brainchild of former National Theatre supremos Nicholas Hytner and Nicholas Starr, it claims to be the first wholly commercial theatre built in London since the Thirties. With an ambitious programme mainly consisting of new writing, it is trading wholly on the – to be frank – unparalleled reputation that Hytner and Starr built at the National. So, with its first production, the Richard Bean and Clive Coleman-scripted Young Marx, has this Bridge ensured a smooth crossing, or is there troubled water ahead?
First things first. The theatre, in a newly regenerated part of Tower Bridge adjacent to County Hall, is a triumph, with surprisingly comfortable seats (and very decent leg room), catering courtesy of St John and lots of nice touches, such as freshly baked madeleines in the interval, creating the most delicious aroma, and fountains dispensing complimentary sparkling and still water. There are still a few minor teething issues – the queues at the bar are ferocious, there aren’t enough places to seat, and much of the food runs out very quickly – but all of these will, no doubt, be resolved very soon. The Nicks are not men to rest on their laurels.
And what of the play itself? As one might expect from Bean, the writer of the estimable One Man, Two Guvnors, the emphasis here is firmly on knockabout comedy, at times teetering on full-blown farce. Taking its leaf from Francis Wheen’s revelatory biography, Karl Marx is here shown during his London sojourn of the early 1850s. As played with customary brilliance by Rory Kinnear, Marx is far from the great philosopher and revolutionary of legend, but a drunk, lecherous and permanently hard-up ne’er-do-well who has to be kept in check by his more successful friend, Frederic Engels (Oliver Chris, a veteran of Guvnors) and his long-suffering baroness wife Jenny von Westphalen (Nancy Carroll). Yet Marx, for all his carousing and poor behaviour, is also a genius, or so we are told repeatedly. Thus, he is allowed to behave disgracefully, because there is method in his madness.
There have seldom been first nights with more goodwill behind them than this one, with an audience primed to laugh themselves silly. Yet, despite a typically slick and fast-paced Hytner production, it’s a problematic play that feels as if it needs a couple more drafts to make its point clearer. Marx is an absurd figure, permanently avoiding creditors and the police alike, and at one point forced to hide up the chimney, with the usual consequences. Yet there are also scenes in which he pontificates, eloquently and fluently, about his political philosophy, and the audience nods along, slightly bemused. If it feels rather like Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia recounted by someone who after a couple of bottles of wine, that can either be seen as a flaw or a strength, depending on your tolerance for slightly rambling – although never boring – stories.
If this sounds slightly grudging, then rest assured that the two hours or so that this is on stage are mainly very entertaining. Kinnear and Chris have splendid chemistry together, and although the female roles are underwritten (including Laura Elphinstone as the put-upon housemaid Nym), there are many moments of low comedy and pathos to keep an audience engaged, including some anachronistic jokes that fall just this side of sitcom-level humour. Mark Thompson’s splendidly versatile design keeps the action going, and although Grant Olding’s guitar-heavy music may not be to everyone’s taste, it gives the whole shebang a suitably lively tempo at which to run along to.
The next production is a promenade staging of Julius Caesar, with the versatile space set up entirely differently. One imagines that the exemplary cast (including Ben Whishaw and David Morrissey) will rise to the occasion just as well as Kinnear, Carroll, Chris et al, and so one tentatively raises a glass to the prospect of another great 21st century success story in the capital. And those madeleines are enough to make anyone return, whatever’s on.
Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre until 31st December 2017. Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes including an interval. National Theatre Live will be broadcasting the production on 7th December. For more information and tickets please visit the website.