This week, a shiny new play in a shiny new theatre. The Bridge Theatre‘s publicity machine would like us to believe that it’s the first new commercial theatre to open in London in several decades, which it isn’t unless you follow the statement with several caveats, but I suppose a certain amount of creative exaggeration in the marketing material is justified: the theatre is gorgeous. Located in the shadow of Tower Bridge, in the base of the kind of half-empty cash-receptacle apartment building where you have to prove you’re a bona fide oligarch before the estate agent will hand you the particulars, the theatre itself is a not-so-little gem. There’s a spacious lobby with plenty of seats, more than enough toilets, classy catering options, free water fountains, and a lovely, welcoming atmosphere – which isn’t the easiest thing to achieve in that kind of building.
More importantly, while it’s great that they’ve mostly got the hospitality side of things exactly right, the auditorium itself is wonderful. It’s understated and functional rather than ornate – a flexible space which can be configured as a traditional proscenium theatre, a thrust stage, or a theatre in the round, with three tiers of galleried seating surrounding the lowest (stalls/stage floor) level. It’s a purely commercial venture that will operate without Arts Council subsidies, but – admirably – there are inexpensive seats at every level, including in the stalls, and the house is carefully designed so that there should be a good, clear view from every level and every price bracket.
Nobody is going to find themselves sitting behind a pillar, or in a seat where you can’t see over the head of the person in front of you. It seats around 900, but feels more intimate.
And, being cheap – I live about 200 miles from London, which means I spend more on train fares than on theatre tickets – I particularly appreciated the theatre’s best bargain: the folding strapontin seats in the stalls, which are perched on the ends of alternate rows in the centre seating block, and which allow those of us whose budgets preclude buying top-price tickets all the time to see the show from the centre stalls and sacrifice a (tiny) bit of comfort in order to save a (bigger) chunk of cash.
For a saving of £40, you get a slightly narrower seat base and no armrest. The regular seats would be more comfortable, but this was hardly the kind of arse-paralyser you get at, for example, Wilton’s Music Hall. It was a perfectly acceptable seat – and as someone who often finds myself sitting upstairs near the back, or at some angle where seeing the whole of the stage leaves me with a crick in my neck, it was great to be able to see a show from fifth-row centre without making my Visa card scream in agony when I made the booking.
The show itself? Well, bear in mind that you’ll be sitting in, essentially, a temple to middlebrow entertainment. This is a commercial establishment; if your idea of a play about Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels involves a two-hour treatise on dialectical materialism, this is not the show for you (and you must be a real hit at parties). Young Marx is – or at least starts out as – a boisterous comedy, rather than a Serious Drama. The first act is a rowdy rollercoaster ride through the perils of Victorian poverty: struggling to pull in enough money to pay the rent, feed his family, and (not the least of these priorities) go out on the piss, Rory Kinnear’s Marx spends the first act being pursued by policemen, baliffs, and other contributors to the revolution (they want to kill Queen Victoria, Marx just wants to sink a pint in every pub in Tottenham Court Road), and trying to keep his wife (a very fine performance from Nancy Carroll) on side. It’s often very funny; Bean and Coleman are experts at this kind of stuff, and – up until the interval – the show is pretty much exactly what you’d expect of a play about a young Karl Marx co-written by the author of One Man, Two Guvnors. There’s a chase across Soho’s rooftops, a lot of hiding in cupboards/up chimneys, a fair amount of anachronistic commentary (particularly in relation to the nature of policing in Victorian London), a scattering of groaners, and a vast assortment of variations on the theme of drunken staggering, and the banter between Marx and Engels often resembles a music-hall comedy duo, to the point where they occasionally break into comic ditties, one of which, blissfully, is sung to the tune of ‘Ode to Joy’ (ten minutes into the show, you’ll be in no doubt as to where Bean and Coleman stand on the Brexit issue). Nicholas Hytner’s fluid direction effortlessly mines every laugh, every double-take, every reaction; it’s tremendous fun, but it’s also, despite the fine performances, a little predictable.
Halfway through the second act, the play takes a sharp turn towards the serious; Bean has taken a few licences here and there, but he sticks broadly to the truth of Karl Marx’s life circa 1850, which means there’s an event he can’t work around – and it’s at this point, unexpectedly, that Young Marx becomes a much stronger, much more interesting play. The second act is not without one or two memorable comic set-pieces – an extended fight scene in the reading room at the British Museum (Charles Darwin is involved – and later contributes a hilarious conjuring trick involving a toy rabbit) is a particular triumph, not least for Kate Waters, the fight director – but the later scenes are genuinely moving, and the play ends on a moment of quiet resolution that feels absolutely earned. Kinnear, Carroll, Oliver Chris (Engels) and Laura Elphinstone (Nym, the Marx’s housekeeper) adroitly negotiate the play’s sudden three-quarter-turn: the comedy in the first act is always grounded in emotional truth, and the seeds for the second act’s shift in tone are very carefully sown earlier in the play. In less assured hands, it wouldn’t work – but here, it works beautifully.
There are fine production values, too – a revolving, unfolding cube of a set by Mark Thompson that makes the (many) scene changes look deceptively simple, appropriately moody lighting from Mark Henderson, and appropriately anarchic electro-punk (until the play’s tone changes) music from Grant Olding. There’s a large cast – fifteen adults, two children – and a faultless set of performances; this is a quality production of a play that turns out to be a lot more interesting than you’d guess from the first act (so it’s a pity the lady sitting immediately to my left left at the start of the interval, but that’s her loss). There aren’t that many holes to pick – except for one rather big one that, unfortunately, is simply a reflection of a much bigger cultural issue. There are fifteen adult actors in the production. Commendably, they’re not all white – but among the supporting actors, the non-white performers are assigned to play, respectively, a turncoat (and the prime villain of the piece), a Prussian spy, a comically clichéd foreign revolutionary, the bailiff who repossesses the Marx family furniture, and a bumbling halfwit. There’s nothing wrong with any of the performances, but assigning all those roles – amid a large ensemble – to minority-ethnic performers is simply plain old-fashioned economy-sized lazy stereotyping, although I’m sure it wasn’t intentional. In 2017, we should be able to do better than that.
Otherwise, this is pretty much a faultless production of a play that is stronger and more complex than it first appears. As we saw last year in the National’s dazzlingly foul-mouthed revival of The Threepenny Opera, Rory Kinnear makes a sensationally compelling antihero, and that’s even more the case here: he’s giving a great big glorious star turn, and he’s worth the cost of the ticket on his own. As for the play, it’s undeniably true that on one level it doesn’t run particularly deep – but while you might not learn much about Marx that you didn’t already know going in, you will be entertained (well, assuming you aren’t the hatchet-faced prune who was sitting on my left during Act One on Saturday afternoon). If this is an indication of things to come, Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr’s tenure at the Bridge is off to a flying start. The venue itself is a triumph, and so is the opening show. That this is a commercial venture is all the more remarkable. It deserves your support, and it deserves to succeed.