If there’s a pang of sadness that said theatre isn’t the National, it really doesn’t last long once you get inside Hytner’s new venture, The Bridge Theatre. From the beautiful - and functional - front of house, to the completely lovely staff to the huge, well stocked bar to the fact that you can order fresh baked madeleines to eat, warm, in the interval (this is the best idea in the history of theatre), The Bridge is not only a safe space for those who still pine for the Hytner-at-the-National era it’s also just a bloody lovely venue. A gem for London’s theatre scene.
Once inside the auditorium, which is very similar to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in design with comfy seats, legroom and great sight lines, things - at the moment at least - only get better. Hytner’s first commission for his new baby is Young Marx, a comedy that reunites the team behind the excellent Great Britain, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, for a romp through the early life of Karl Marx. As a political refugee, Marx lived with his family in digs in Soho for a time pre-Das Kapital and it is this period of boozing, duelling and problematic family life that the play concerns itself with.
It is a great piece of writing, in short. It’s extremely funny in both a knowing chuckle and proper laugh out loud sort of way, drawing its comedy both from politics and, more often, simply from human life. It’s a play that seeks to demystify Marx (and Friedrich Engels) and it does so really well, delivering a very human story of two ordinary men and the competing pressures of their ordinary lives with their extraordinary ideas. It doesn’t set out to be a documentary; though everything that happens in the play is true, some license has been taken with locations and characters to prioritise a coherent and strong narrative. It also delivers some pleasingly darker moments, particularly in the second half, include a genuinely touching funeral scene. The balance between these moments and the comedy is perfectly drawn. It is a rich, fulfilling and entertaining play. Nick Hytner has not lost his eye for a good newbie.
The production is fantastic too. Hytner is in the director’s chair (and I breathe another happy sigh at writing that phrase) and gives us a show that is pacy, energetic and yet feels enjoyably like it’s always slightly verging on chaos. How I’ve missed that man! Mark Thompson’s design is fab; structurally impressive, in that it involves a very large piece of set (a house/shop/British Museum reading room, delete as appropriate) that must turn all the way around on a revolve and open and close to deliver each piece of scenery, and completely visually effective too. The smoking chimneys of the London skyline were almost Disney-esque in their attention to detail. The use - and selection - of music is joyously incongruous to the period and really effective. Composer Grant Olding (of, amongst other things, Jekyll and Hyde ballet fame) has done good here. The production is a gritty, dirty, dangerous treat.
Young Marx reunites Hytner with Rory Kinnear (fun fact: the first show I ever saw at the National was Hytner’s Othello with Kinnear as Iago and I still think about that show sometimes when I’m sad to make me smile) who is, it almost goes without saying, fantastic in the lead role. He does comedy so, so well, particularly the domestic stuff, and his considerable acting chops (sounds dirty, but you know what I mean) shine in the darker moments. He makes Marx a deeply human, deeply sympathetic, figure. He has extremely strong support across the board in an excellent cast, particularly Nancy Carroll as Marx’s wife who is luminously empathetic and Oliver Chris as a charismatic Engels, a perfect companion for Marx who pleasingly complicates the family life vs intellectual life balance that the play explores by being both more pro-family and pro-Marxism than Marx. And look out for Duncan Wisbey’s hilarious ‘Bearded Man in Library’ who almost steals the whole show with his fantastic, David Attenborough voiced, Charles Darwin.
Young Marx is a great production: funny, thoughtful, interesting, beautifully staged and superbly acted. Moreover, The Bridge Theatre is an exciting new venue in London’s theatre scene that I cannot wait to go back to. Go for the plays, stay for the madeleines.
Young Marx is at The Bridge Theatre until 31st December.