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A CurtainUp London Review
Richard Bean and co-writer Clive Coleman have penned this play about Karl Marx's (Rory Kinnear) life in Dean Street, Soho in the 1850s with his wife Jenny von Westphalen (Nancy Carroll) and their children, with their benefactor, the industrialist Friedrick Engels (Oliver Chris).
The theatre has been designed by a team including the brilliant theatre architect Steve Tomkins and every one of the nine hundred plus seats has a really good view albeit not the same view, without entry to the auditorium feeling like a mountaintop. The stage and seating have the flexibility of being able to change the configuration and importantly there is no overhang from the Circle, here called the Gallery, as in so many of London's older theatres.
In the programme, the author of the biography of Karl Marx (1999), Francis Wheen, tells us that "the roguish young roue of this drama – boozing and swearing, laughing and loving, dodging and weaving – may startle some audiences. Yet here's the most startling thing: almost all of it is true."
The play opens in the foggy streets of London town with its soot soaked buildings and Marx is at the pawnbrokers attempting to pawn a piece of his wife's inherited silver, inscribed with the crest of the Earls of Argyle. This arouses the suspicion of the pawnbroker, the police are called and a roof top chase ensues. Marx had been in London for 15 months after being expelled twice from France, from Belgium and Prussia and there were spies reporting on his meetings of the socialist workers organisation.
Richard Bean's touch as we approach the centenary of Marx's birth is to give us a comic view of the impecunious Marx as a family man who is perpetually broke and avoiding his creditors. Some of his conversation will also allude to his revolutionary ideas and we shall remember that Marx thought the revolution of the proletariat would come in an industrialised society not the agricultural one of Tsarist Russia. Friedrick Engels is not only Marx's financial supporter but an intellectual collaborator but that isn't to say that we can't really enjoy the musical double act we are treated to twice in the play of Marx and Engels as Vaudeville artists on Marx's daughter's (Matilda Shapland) piano.
As well as the comedy there are moments of distress and sadness when Marx loses his son Guido "Fawksey" Marx (Logan Clark). Like many Victorian impoverished families Marx, himself tubercular, saw four of his children die in infancy or childhood. Young Marx debunks any notion that Marx was entirely faithful to his long suffering and aristocratic wife Jenny, when we see he has made their housekeeper Nym, Helene Demuth (Laura Elphinstone) pregnant. This incident persuades Jenny to temporarily leave Marx for the attentions of her suitor August von Willich (Nicholas Burns) and results in an illegal duel.
These incidents are not historically accurate but a melange and indicative of the kinds of situations Marx might have found himself in; for instance his son "Fawksley" died aged one of meningitis in 1850 and the other son Henry Edgar died aged 8 in 1855 so the details need not be accepted as historically accurate but as having been given artistic and dramatic licence. It is true that Marx's nickname was "Mohr" in German or Moor in English because of his swarthy appearance and used by his closest family and friends.
I loved the performances, these three outstanding: Rory Kinnear's affable and likable Marx with such a lovely personality and a good physical resemblance to the revolutionary thinker, Nancy Carroll's brave in adversity, Jenny, and Oliver Chris's ever considerate, rescuing Engels. Great direction is often one where you are unaware of the director's touch and Hytner is an expert at creating believable realities.
Mark Thompson's set of Victorian Soho, with many chimneys and smoke effects, has a good solidity inside the Marx home which means the doors close with a satisfying thud and are never a flimsy set. Costumes too are authentic with top hatted policemen pursuing Marx. Mark Henderson's lighting conveys the gas lit era well and Paul Arditti's soundscape uses the Internationale (1888) and other tunes of the era.
Young Marx is first and foremost a romp through Victorian society that was a lot darker than the situations we laugh at in this Beanfest of the humorous and idiosyncratic. It is of course great fun and will make you smile or laugh out loud.
Anyone who cannot get to the Bridge Theatre for the live performance can book into the cinema screenings on 7th December 2017 at www.ntlive.com
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By Richard Bean and Clive Coleman
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Rory Kinnear, Oliver Chris, Nancy Carroll, Laura Elphinstone
With: Duncan Wisbey, Joseph Wilkins, Logan Clark/Rupert Turnbull/Joseph Walker, Tony Jayawardena, Eben Figueiredo, Dixie Egerickx/Matilda Shapland/Harriet Turnbull, Scott Karim, Alana Ramsey, Fode Simbo, Nicholas Burns, Miltos Yerolemou, William Troughton, Sophie Russell
Design: Mark Thompson
Lighting Design: Mark Henderson
Sound Design: Paul Arditti
Fights: Kate Waters
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0843 208 1846
Booking to 31st December 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 25th October 2017 performance at the Bridge Theatre, One Tower Bridge, London SE1 2SD (Rail/Tube London Bridge and then a 12 minute walk and easiest to find by the river bank)
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