Review: Young Marx

The new play Young Marx is an affectionate and funny account of Karl Marx’s early life as an impoverished émigré in Victorian London, says Keith McKenna.

Rory Kinnear played by Karl Marx. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The revolution will be fun, at least if playwrights Richard Bean and Clive Coleman have anything to do with it. Their Young Marx, which inaugurates the new Bridge Theatre on London’s South Bank, is an affectionate funny account of the 32 year old Karl Marx living in Soho in 1850.

The farce is restrained, the events depicted mostly true, and Marx’s politics shown to be a product of experience and other people. The very first scene sets the tone. Marx is suspected of being a thief when he tries to pawn the silver his wife has inherited. Police are called and he escapes by running across a rooftop and clambering up a chimney.

This is a Marx who is fast on his feet, quick with his jokes and struggling desperately with debt. He would like to put politics and his problems on one side and simply go on a pub crawl down Tottenham Court Road. But the world keeps pulling him back. His children need food, his friends clamour for his writing and the creditors demand payment.

The play’s great strength is the uplifting picture it paints of these circumstances. Humour is central to this without ever overwhelming or undermining the emotional impact of the more sombre moments, such as the death of someone Marx knows.

Then there is the ‘Brilliant Marx and Engels, Europe’s finest double act’. Well, that’s what they sing as Marx plays the piano.

Rory Kinnear as Marx switches easily from being the selfish lad trampling on the emotions of others to suddenly and very convincingly becoming the charming and compassionate companion. When Marx begins to wallow in self pity about his debts, claiming to be brutalised by his world, Engels (Oliver Chris) angrily counters with memories of the horror of working class lives he has seen in Manchester.

Most of the conversations are amiable banter but as Marx makes family and friends breakfast he casually illustrates the concept of alienation with reference to the bacon and eggs he is cooking. Persuaded to attend a political meeting, Marx is shown arguing against a proposal to make social change through random acts of terrorism and assassination. When he finally gets down to writing Capital we see his wife Jenny (Nancy Carroll) and their friend Nym (Laura Elphinstone) question and suggest changes. The great work is being written collectively.

There will be those who think the show too light on its feet and uncritical of Marx, but to have found more than two hours of fun that also tells us a lot about important historical figures is no small achievement. This is a bold entertaining start to a new very comfortable theatre.

Originally published in theatreguide.london