GORDON PARSONS recommends a play on the young life in London of a founding father of communism
Bridge Theatre, London
LOOKING at the stern-faced 19th-century photographs of Darwin, Freud and Marx, the major makers of the modern age, it’s difficult to imagine that they ever went through the trials of youth.
Help is at hand, though, with Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s new play which opens London’s splendid new Bridge Theatre. It has a 32-year-old Marx rolling drunkenly around the streets of Dickensian Soho, desperately coping with his Dean Street slum home life. Beset by poverty, he escapes the law Bill Sykes-fashion by scaling the rooftops and leaping into the cupboard or up the chimney at every knock on the door.
There are no threats from his wife, Nancy Carroll’s long-suffering Jenny, to leave him, nor can any amount of cajoling from his financial mentor, Oliver Chris’s devoted Engels, get him back to completing “Economic Shit,” his epic analysis of capitalism.
His involvement in revolutionary activities are constantly monitored by a comic spy whose complaint when Marx doesn’t wait for him on his way to a meeting leads to a botched duel.
The jokes are of the knock-knock type — the police sergeant, when asked if he should have a warrant to search the house, answers: “I dunno. Law enforcement, early days, it’s all up for grabs.”
But what at first seems to be borrowing heavily from TV’s Shakespeare spoof Upstart Crow and the Horrible Histories series undergoes a mood change.
The ever-supportive Engels, frustrated with the insensitive cavorting of Rory Kinnear’s Marx and his role in their music-hall routine, delivers a searing personal account of the degradation of the Manchester working class and it typifies Nicholas Hytner’s production, which never lets us settle into the comfort of farce.
A hilarious riot in the British Museum reading room, raging around an oblivious Charles Darwin, is followed by the human predicament of Marx persuading Engels to agree to take the unborn child he has fathered on the family maid Nym (Laura Elphinstone) as his own.
Marx’s’ “coming of age” arrives with the shattering news of his sick young son’s death. And the final Chekhovian scene of a hard-won domestic happiness against all the odds, has the Marx family settling to the task of working on Capital, his monumental life’s work which was to change the world.
Despite all the knockabout fun, the playwrights never allow this Marx to become a clown figure. Kinnear conveys both the pain behind the mask and the passion informing his understanding of the exploitative cruelty of the system.
“Greed is the most powerful elixir…it commands not just banks and markets but governments, whole states that must underpin and serve it.”
You can’t be more on-message than that.
Runs until December 31, box office: bridgetheatre.co.uk. The production will be broadcast live in cinemas on December 7, details: ntlive.com