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Young Marx: a flawed farce, but one that’s definitely worth seeing

Matthew Partridge reviews Young Marx, a comedy about one of the most influential and destructive economists of the nineteenth century.

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Rory Kinnear (centre) as Marx. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

How do you write a popular comedy about one of the most influential (and destructive) economists of the nineteenth century? In Young Marx, the opening production of London's new Bridge Theatre Richard Bean looks at the writer of the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital in middle-age.

With his family is languishing in poverty, Marx (Rory Kinnear) is more interested in carousing than starting his long-overdue book, and is seriously considering abandoning intellectual life for a steady job as a railway clerk. Meanwhile, his long-suffering wife, Jenny von Westphalen (Nancy Carroll), is being pursued by August Von Willich (Nicholas Burns), who is also supporting a French revolutionary (Miltos Yerolemou) trying to push Marx's group in a more violent direction.

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As you'd expect from the author of One Man, Two Guvnors, the jokes come thick and fast, and it opens with Marx referencing his labour theory of exchange during negotiations with a pawnbroker.

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There's also a lot of physical comedy, with Marx disappearing up a chimney and into a cupboard in order to deal with the stream of visitors, including a policemen, bailiff and even a half-crazed admirer. A row with Engels in the reading room of the British Museum turns into a crazed bust-up that even ends up bringing in Charles Darwin (who was also writing his Origin of Species at the time).

It's not all fun and games, nor is it a piece of left-wing agitprop. A discussion about where the revolution is likely to take place deliberately references the tragedy that would unfold 70 years later when Marx's acolytes were in charge of a country. During the course of the play, people are injured, die and lives changes not always for the better.

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Rory Kinnear portrays the writer as a flawed man, sometimes incredibly generous, at other times more selfish than his children. The play's heroes are Carrol's Jenny and Oliver Chris's Engels, a man who is prepared to subsume his own intellectual ambitions in order to support his friend.

My one criticism is that the play is a bit episodic. At times, it feels like two plays welded together. At heart it is about a man learning that he can't run away from his responsibilities, both on a personal and professional level. Even those who think that it would have been better for him to have died in the duel that concludes the first half, can't failed to be moved by the emotional conclusion.

Were he alive, Marx himself would almost certainly have appreciated the irony that the first major commercial theatre to open in London in a long time has chosen this particular subject for their first play.

It's not perfect, but it's definitely worth seeing during the last fortnight of its runs.

Young Marx is directed by Nicholas Hytner, and runs at the New Bridge Theatre until 31 December.

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