'Young Marx': Theater Review

Courtesy of Manuel Harlan
Rory Kinnear, center, and company in 'Young Marx'
Lightweight larks with Engels and Marx.

The creators of 'One Man, Two Guvnors' reunite to launch a major new London theater with this epic farce about Karl Marx in his boozy young troublemaker days, starring Rory Kinnear.

The team behind transatlantic smash hit One Man, Two Guvnors is clearly shooting for the same brand of boisterous populist spectacle with Young Marx. Written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, this rowdy historical comedy has been selected by director Nicholas Hytner to christen The Bridge, the first major all-new commercial theater to be built in London for 80 years. Just two years after ending his hugely successful run as artistic director of Britain's flagship National Theatre, Hytner has returned at the helm of a beautiful new $16 million space overlooking Tower Bridge, its cavernous 900-seat interior sumptuously finished in dark wood and rich autumnal colors. Imagine the London lair of a James Bond villain with impeccable taste in mood lighting.

Designed by architects Haworth Tompkins, The Bridge itself already feels like a winner. But Hytner's inaugural choice of play is a less solidly constructed affair. It features sustained bursts of brilliance, an eye-popping set and a bravura star performance by stage veteran Rory Kinnear (Skyfall, The Imitation Game) as a 32-year-old Karl Marx. But the narrative is a little shapeless, the comedy inconsistent and the second act strangely flat. Spanning roughly two hours, Young Marx begins as farce but ends as tragedy, which even the most casual student of Marxism knows is the wrong way around. That said, with advance ticket sales already totaling $1.3 million, a winning creative team and the lure of a classy new theater, business should be brisk. The play will also screen in 700 cinemas worldwide Dec. 7 via NT Live. Yes, this revolutionary will be televised.

The year is 1850. Fleeing from the wave of failed revolutions sweeping Europe, Marx (Kinnear, bearded and bewigged) and his family are penniless refugees sharing a squalid two-room apartment in London's Soho. As a high-profile leftist rabble-rouser, Marx is infamous enough to warrant constant surveillance from British police officers and Prussian spies. But his self-indulgent lifestyle is more that of a boozy womanizer who shuns work, picks constant fights with rival socialist factions, and steals silver family heirlooms from his long-suffering wife Jenny (Nancy Carroll) to finance his marathon drinking binges. When debt collectors and detectives call, he simply hides in a cupboard. This is not just great comedy, but historically accurate.

A visit from Marx's closest comrade and on-off financial patron Freidrich Engels (Oliver Chris, on suave good form) helps steer the louche young radical back toward work on his long-gestating magnum opus, Das Kapital. But Marx has other complications to deal with first, including a potentially fatal duel against August Von Willich (Nicholas Burns), a pompous political rival with romantic designs on Jenny. There is also the delicate matter of persuading Engels to claim responsibility for an illegitimate son that Marx himself has fathered with his wife's devoted maid Helene Demuth (Laura Elphinstone). The real duel actually took place in Belgium without Marx being present, and historians are still divided over the child's true paternity. But no matter, since both episodes work as richly comic soap opera.

Bean, Coleman and Hytner initially seem to giving Marx the Amadeus treatment, showing us the boorish, sexually incontinent, booze-soaked egotist behind the revered historical icon. One inspired early motif has Engels and Marx mugging like a music-hall double act, trading droll quips and irreverent songs. Another uproarious set-piece involves a cameo appearance by Charles Darwin, and a brawl in the British Museum library. These are juicy comic conceits worthy of vintage Monty Python or Mel Brooks, but sadly they are not developed to their full potential.

Later there are strong echoes of the fabled "kitchen sink" movement that emerged in mid-20th-century British drama, with Marx as the original Angry Young Man, ranting impotently against corrupt capitalist elites from his threadbare apartment while his long-suffering female entourage quietly deals with the domestic drudgery that makes his diatribes possible. Behind every great man stands at least one infinitely patient woman, silently rolling her eyes.

Young Marx is front-loaded with great ideas, audience-nudging historical ironies and lusty comic brio. Alas, it simply cannot sustain such energy levels, and runs out of steam as the second act progresses. When an unexpected bereavement forces Marx to sober up and finally take his revolutionary destiny seriously, the play becomes much more somber and naturalistic. And, frankly, a little boring. History repeats itself, first as Monty Python, then as Henrik Ibsen.

Although Bean and Coleman make token attempts to explain some basic Marxist concepts, including the theory of surplus value and how workers become alienated from their labor, they are grafted onto the text with no imaginative sparkle. A sharp-witted dramatist would make these ideas fresh and timely and pointedly relevant to the current political climate, but instead they feel like afterthoughts. The ending is also strangely anticlimactic. After nearly two hours of comic anarchy, the restrained tone is a gamble that does not pay off.

But structural problems aside, Young Marx hits the target about two-thirds of the time. Kinnear deserves maximum credit for another of his powerhouse stage performances, smoothly switching registers from high-energy slapstick clowning to epigrammatic Wildean banter ("she's not adapting at all well to abject poverty") to more nuanced psychodrama. Mark Thompson's revolving set — a towering L-shaped exterior wall of sooty brickwork with interior spaces couched within and a cluster of smoking chimneys perched above — is an ingenious three-dimensional bricolage of stylized Dickensian Victoriana. Dominated by muddy earthtones and nicotine browns, the overall color palette feels a little muted for comedy, but it makes for some attractive sepia-tinted tableaux when the full ensemble are gathered onstage.

Venue: Bridge Theatre, London
Cast: Rory Kinnear, Nicholas Burns, Nancy Carroll, Oliver Chris, Laura Elphinstone, Miltos Yerolemou, Scott Karim, Fode Simbo, William Troughton
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Playwrights: Richard Bean, Clive Coleman
Set & costume designer: Mark Thompson
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Music: Grant Olding
Fight director: Kate Waters
Presented by Bridge Theatre