Apparently, communism is a (mostly) joyous romp that provides a ton of comedic fodder. I didn’t know this, but now that a play about it made me laugh for two hours, I might be sold! “Young Marx” at London’s brand new Bridge Theatre, under the south bank side of Tower Bridge, impresses by being both dramatically solid and comedically hysterical. I would not be surprised if the runner-up for the title was a Jeb! The Musical-inspired “Communism!” I realize that nothing about this is related to Borat, but I can’t help hearing him say “Great success!” in reply to that equally valid title.
The clever play comes from writers Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, who I would take a chance on assuming knocked a couple back while writing this, but then again they are British, so that’s not really an assumption at all. But it really seems like they had fun with this, which lets the audience have fun too. And they’re no strangers to comedy. Richard Bean wrote one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen – “One Man Two Guvnors” – which put James Corden on the map for Americans (should we thank him or….), like really a spit-take kind of show. Then again, he also wrote “Made in Dagenham” which I virulently despised with every fiber of my being…but I guess that’s kind of funny! You didn’t mean for that to be so terrible, did you! But it was! That’s funny!
As for Clive Coleman, this just in he has the career path I want: he was an English lawyer, then became a legal correspondent on the news (the news!), and then starting writing for sitcoms (TELEVISION!) and comedies and now has this very decent credit to his name in a theatre with amaaazing bathrooms (see below). I MEAN, here’s the path, let’s follow it. “The way is clear! The light is good!” &c.
Honestly, speaking of one, I could see this being a musical. There aren’t many new musical comedies with a classic feel. It could be so funny, although I don’t know how open to having Karl Marx jump into a tap break the snooty London theatergoers would be.
But jump around he does, in all sorts of hilarious twists and hijinx. Karl is played by the great Rory Kinnear, who you would definitely 100% recognize but I would say about 90% of you would be like ‘oh I know him from…what do I know him from?’ He’s one of those faces that you know but he’s not exactly a household name outside of the UK. Anyway, you know him from the three Daniel Craig James Bond films. He’s one of those guys that isn’t Bond or Judi Dench.
Karl’s wife, Jenny von Westphalen, was a member of the Prussian aristocracy. Her family was maaad. She and Karl and their babies and their maid lived in squalor, with bailiffs coming every day to take more of their possessions to put against his debt. The show opens with Karl trying to hock one of his wife’s most prized possessions, a silver Argyll teapot or something (they just refer to it as the Argyll is that a thing) worth more money than he’s probably ever seen (or wants to see! Money evil burn the money burn the witch! I need to reread him I guesss) in order to pay off some of those debts, or maybe to buy food for his family. But the pawnshopper thinks he stole it, this poor man coming in with a piece like that, and calls the cops on him, but of course Rory hops around this way and that and hijinkilly outsmarts and outruns the cops. Jenny, obviously long-suffering but fully committed to fighting for socialism (which means, from the looks of it, simply living in squalor), helps her husband hide from the fuzz repeatedly in a manner it’s obvious has been done hundreds of times – in the fireplace, then in the cupboard, to very amusing result. Jenny is played by Nancy Carroll, who did a very good ‘ugh I hate having to give these bailiffs all my fancy dresses when I could still be rich af in Germany but ughhh I guess it’s for a good cause hooray for communism but also I’m going to flirt with this other rich guy just to make my husband feel bad about not providing for me despite that being impossible to do without buying into the capitalist system’ wife.
My favorite character was Oliver Chris’s (two first names!) portrayal of Friedrich Engels, Marx’s partner in crime and coauthor on a bunch of important works that I’ve definitely read. Engels was depicted as kind of suave and kind of goofy at the same time, indulging Karl’s way of life (poverty) by giving him money (Engels was loaded from his family, it appeared) whenever his children needed to eat or see a doctor and stuff so Marx would never need to get a real job and could just write and drink and smoke. Engels later goes to work at his father’s mill so he could keep sending money to Karl to support him while he worked, which is all kind of telling right, like that he needed an influx of cash from the capitalist pigs to let him keep writing about how terrible capitalism is? (Hypocrite, hypocrite tell you what he do.) The camaraderie between Karl and Engels was clear and fun and portrayed as kind of bros like they were Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in a movie. They played amusing little ditties on the piano while singing variations of what would be their Saturday morning cartoon theme song. Loves it!
“Young Marx” is so interesting because everything pretty much was true. And because it’s true, it wasn’t all happy fun. Like he has an affair with his maid and gets her pregnant, which is you know not the best thing to do to his unsmiling wife, and his young son Fauksy dies of illness, which I did NOT appreciate coming in a mostly comedic show. I wasn’t prepared for that shit, and it kind of didn’t pack the emotional punch they intended it to because it wasn’t an integral part of the plot. Sure it showed how much of an ass Karl could be, when he was late for his own son’s funeral, but it felt out of place. It was true though; Karl’s son Edgar died at 8, so sad. Even sadder, he had 7 children in real life (we only meet two) but only 3 survived to adulthood. Even sadder, they named four of their children Jenny. Communism is not creative, I guess.
Rory does an excellent job of carrying this show, proving why he is such an important actor here in the UK. He gives off a much more youthful vibe than I’m used to with him, I guess because the title calls for it, but it is very surprising and effective. Marx is not really that young in the time depicted but Rory gives off a youthful energy and enthusiasm in Marx that works to show his drive and zeal. He may not have shown the best work ethic or moral standards, but his passion for his beliefs was undeniable.
I was confused a little when the characters close to Marx kept referring to him as ‘Moor’ but apparently that was a true thing, and quite racist: His intimates used the nickname ‘Moor’ because he had a dark complexion and dark curly hair. I learned so much! What really stood out, though, was how clever Nicholas Hytner’s direction and staging were. In these scenes between Karl and his intimates, they would speak fluent English in their regular English accents. But as soon as a bailiff or someone not privy to their personal lives would enter the room, Marx & friends would start speaking broken English in German accents. So when they were shown to be speaking fluent English in the privacy of their home, we were to assume that they were really speaking German. Such genius! It worked so well, and showed so clearly how important it is for direction to elevate plays beyond what’s simply written on the page.
Hytner clearly considered his direction here, and it paid off with impeccable staging and clever decisions that gave the show so much of its dynamic energy. And it’s a good thing he worked so hard, because Hytner is a founder of the Bridge Theatre. And this is the first show ever playing at the Bridge! So much riding on this, and everyone did a fantastic job. I really am surprised at how much I enjoyed it. It wasn’t perfect by any means, and a future production or perhaps a transfer to the West End would be wise to make a few minor edits, but overall it’s an incredibly entertaining two hours about communists, people who don’t exactly scream ‘I’m so much fun’ but are shown to be just that.
“Young Marx” is playing at the Bridge Theatre until December 31. Now that it’s open, the Bridge is the best physical venue in London. The bathrooms are well designed – there are SO MANY stalls, and so there was no intermission line. And, unlike most West End theatres, the line for the toilets does not go past the sinks, blocking everyone who needs to wash their hands from doing so. God whoever designed all the other theatres is REAL DUMB. AND, unlike ALL other West End theatres, the toilets actually flush. (The plumbing in this country is abysmal why does no one talk about it? Fix it! Anyway, point is, the Bridge is spectacular. There is a great lobby and bar on the main floor, with wifi (which they display the information for, so smart again) AND there are water taps with cups around. I hope this theatre does well and continues to have great shows because I would go just for the water and the toilets.