Scene: A bar in a small community theatre in South East London. Two playwrights are discussing a performance of their play – a play they wrote for the opening of the Bridge Theatre in London. It is only the second staging of the play that has ever be performed, and an amateur premier.
Richard Bean: How long into the play did it take you to relax?
Clive Coleman: I knew they’d nailed it in the first 2 minutes
And nailed it they had. It was remarkable enough that Bromley Little Theatre got the rights to stage Young Marx, but the attention to detail, polish and sheer joy of this exuberant production raised the bar still further at this gem of a theatre.
Young Marx is a farce about the young Karl Marx in his boozy early years. It tells the largely accurate story of a dissolute young man doing everything he can to avoid his great work, his responsibilities and his creditors.
It’s 1850. A young Karl Marx and his family are refugees, living in poverty in a two-room apartment in Soho. Already notorious, Marx is under constant surveillance, although, if truth by told, his boozy womanising seems more of a threat to his marriage than to the fabric of society.
At the heart of the play are the efforts of Engels and others. To persuade, coax and cajole Marx into resuming work on his epic masterpiece, Das Kapital. Along the way, Marx has to deal with:
- A duel with his political rival August Von Willich, who openly but unsuccessfully covets Marx’s wife
- The need to persuade Engels to assume paternity for Marx’s illegitimate son, whom Marx has fathered with the fiercely loyal maid, Helen Demoth (Nym)
- The death of his son
In the end, it is hard to escape the conclusion that as Marx sobers up and finally takes his destiny seriously, he becomes a little more boring.
Stylistically the play appears to be a farce, but that is too easy a categorisation. We also see Marx and Engels collaborate to bring us a convincing music hall double act, and a beautifully choreographed slapstick fight scene in the British Library. Meanwhile the intimation of a kitchen sink drama is never far away, with Marx as the perfect angry young man.
This was an ensemble performance and the entire cast are to be congratulated, but at the heart of its success were four outstanding performances. Howie Ripley gave a us a young Marx full of joy and mischievousness. His relentless energy drove the production along. His obvious bad behaviour seems both hilarious and endearing to everyone but his wife, Jenny. Alongside Marx was Robert O’Neill’s Engels. Less of a drunk, but even more of womaniser, Engels is portrayed as the Beta+ to Marx’s Alpha genius. He was the perfect companion to the flamboyant Marx, and O’Neill judged his performance nicely, adding to the ribaldry while maintaining his role as the more sensible half of the double act.
Alongside these male leads, were two strong female characters. Alison Green was excellent as and the long-suffering and not always patient Jenny Marx. She provided an entirely believable combination of loyal wife, whose patience was stretched to breaking point, and strident woman, speaking at meetings and providing leadership for the movement in her own right.
But for me the star of the show was Nym, played by Bethan Boxall. Both subtle and outspoken, nurturing and forthright, she convinced us that there might have been a second equally strong female presence in Marx’s life. Why otherwise would Marx have an affair with his maid when his wife was so obviously no pushover herself?
No description of the cast would be complete without mention of two stars of tomorrow. Steven Bakiri, as Guido Fawkesy Marx, was effortlessly cute throughout and played his part convincingly. Tess Cordery played Marx’s daughter, Jenny Caroline, and confidently helped to create a sense of real family.
Critics of the play when it was first staged, as the opening production of the new Bridge Theatre, complained that the more serious sections – the attempt to explain the theory of surplus value, and how workers are exploited – seemed to be added on and do not have the same spark as the comedic parts of the play, but that seems to me to be missing the point. The aim of the play is to humanise a historical figure who is too often reduced to a series of hackneyed images – Highgate Cemetery, the British Library, the big beard. In that, it succeeds brilliantly, and the result – one that this production so ably illustrated – is an entertaining and joy-filled evening, punctuated with moments of real pathos.
That all looks easy when you get it right, but there is a delicate balance at play. Any more slapstick and you tip over into plain silliness; too heavy on the historical explanations and you kill the comedy. Pauline Armour is especially to be congratulated not only for securing the rights to stage the play but for her vision and attention to detail. But both director and cast must take the credit for finding and maintaining the perfect pace and momentum for the piece, for choreographing some intricate and hilarious scenes and for sending the audience home thoroughly entertained and a little educated. And that balance is just what was needed.