‘Young Marx’: from the team behind ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’

Rory Kinnera and Oliver Chris. Photo: Manuel Harlan

A new play in a new theatre sees the Bridge Theatre as founded by Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr boldly open with YOUNG MARX by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman , reuniting the team behind one of the biggest hits of Hytner’s reign at the National: One Man, Two Guvnors as part of the NTLive series.

It does have elements of farce , Conmedia Del ‘Arte and the Marx Brothers ( slamming/hiding /opening doors , stealing a gate , frantic chases) but actually is quite powerful and moving and transfers excellently from stage to screen.

The world of the young Marx – not the iconic older revered economist – struggling to survive in London in the 1850’s is evoked. So there is a dingy Dickensian atmosphere and costumes.

Rory Kinnear is sensational as the bearded rather scruffy 32-year-old refugee, living a virtually destitute life , newly settled in Soho where he is chaotically crammed in a two-room flat in Dean Street with wife, maid and children . On the run (up chimneys and over roof-tops) from bailiffs, spies and other creditors, Europe’s most feared terrorist has lost himself and can’t think – his marriage is cracking , he suffers from writer’s block and his best friend Engels (viewed here as the other half of political economy’s most important duo) is disturbed that Marx the endlessly procrastinating genius has desperately applied for a job as a railway clerk. Marx is also phenomenally selfish and treats the women in his life appallingly at times. Kinnear also depicts very well Marx’s indecision – haunted by self-doubt he is a political visionary and also a flagrant sponger.

Engels is actually the more sympathetic figure, and terribly handsome Oliver Chris who looks a bit like Prince Albert plays him with a palpable passionate resentment against poverty and providing financial support to the Marxes where possible. Yes Engels really did work at his father’s Lancashire cotton mill and pillage the petty-cash in order to finance Marx who – despite his prodigious theoretical grasp of finance – was too poor to pay the medical bills for his chronically ill son.

And yes Marx also really did pawn his wife’s family silver behind her back, got his family servant pregnant , disowned their child and sadly lost four children before they reached adulthood. His wife Jenny (marvellously portrayed by Nancy Carroll) really was the sister of the Prussian minister for the interior who, after an assassination attempt on King Frederick William IV, set spies on political exiles in London – with particular reference to Dean Street.

Whether Marx in stirring speeches is correctly predicting the commercialisation of Christmas or falsely prophesying the downfall of capitalism in just such a market crash as recently occurred, you never doubt the genuineness or courage of his vision.

Mark Thompson’s compact design of a brick cube topped with a chimney-scape (reminiscent of Mary Poppins or Oliver ),revolves and unfolds to reveal the various locale-( the upstairs function room of the Red Lion, the British Museum reading room that becomes the site of a brawl , the meeting place of the factious emigres et al.) We also see how the Marx family fortunes wax and wane with an almost bare room once the bailiffs have invaded contrasted later with a furnished room with piano, table and chairs and pictures on the wall.

Nancy Carroll and Rory Kinnear photo Manuel Harlan

Nancy Carroll is tremendous as Jenny, Marx’s wife , who is sorely tried, her anxious adherence painfully tested , while Laura Elphinstone shines as the sadly staunch maid ‘Nym ‘ treated horrendously by Marx. The rest of the ensemble under Hytner’s assured direction is in fine form too.

What is interesting is the play’s depiction of a welcoming London where refugees were warmly accepted and where a wanted man like Marx, fleeing from the wave of 1848 revolutions in Europe (he was forced out of several countries and mistakenly branded a terrorist) could attempt to live peacefully without fear of arrest or extradition (unless bailiffs arrived).

Running time – roughly 2 hours 45 minutes including interval . There are interviews with Nick Hytner and historical information in short documentaries .  YOUNG MARX  screens at selected cinemas from 17 March.