On my second outing with the little group of theatre-going companions assembled together by the intrepid Elizabeth the drama was Young Marx, written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. It is in London’s latest theatre, Bridge Theatre, beautifully located near Tower Bridge. I met two more members of this group with Elizabeth for coffee in the foyer bar and free madeleines came with the tickets. A fantastic beginning!
The seating design is unusual, with mainly stalls seating and narrow galleries in the high levels. This means a very clear view for everybody with no supporting columns in the manner. It feels romantic but seats up to 900 and was packed to the Sunday matinee. We were just two rows from the stage, my favorite place to see how everything is working. The collections were especially effective, all assembled in a cube that revolved to provide various road exteriors and building interiors.
The play starts with Marx selling his wife’s family silver rather literally but being suspected of stealing it and running from the authorities. He is thinking of giving up on his political writing and taking work at Paddington Station, which might help him cover a doctor for his son and may save his marriage, though it’s a little working class to get a woman from her wealthy background. She is packing clothes just retrieved from the pawnbroker and is about to leave him.
If this all sounds serious, that is not how it is treated. The opening scenes are farcical and there’s much running in authentic Keystone Cops style. Marx shins walls up up the chimney into his house, and into a cupboard to hide from the police. He makes light of his spouse’s packed case with jokes which are irritating snipes instead of laugh-out-loud humour. I wasn’t sure when I was going to enjoy it but soon found it had been an extraordinary blend of farcical humor, satire, ridiculous jokes my father may have told, and serious scenes which could jolt and be mentally moving. Not an easy combination to pull off.
The promotional blurb describes Marx as ’emotionally illiterate’ and that certainly comes across. It also says he’s ‘young’ and ‘horny’, which is misleading.
Marx and his wife both argue that they agree with the use of violence but they believe it would turn the British working class against them, especially if an attempt is made to assassinate Queen Victoria, who is loved by her subjects.
Nobody could fail to see the irony of that belief. There are also silly anachronistic jokes, like the policeman saying he’s ‘done a course’ when Marx thanks him for not using violence.
The humour can suddenly vanish as the scenes become serious, such as Engels describing the living conditions of the poor in Manchester. Marx has just described himself as ‘brutalised’, and Engels says he wouldn’t use that word for himself when he had seen Manchester. There was laughter from the crowd, but then it became serious as Engels spoke of the folks working in the mills and living in crowded houses with sand and excrement deep outside for them to walk through. My ancestors on my father’s side moved to Salford from Dublin at about this time this play was set because of new English laws destroying the Irish textile industry so that this was a dramatic scene for me. They weren’t encouraged by the recently formed unions since the Irish had been suspected as the cause for lower cover, with rhetoric quite much like the Brexit discourse nowadays. This isn’t mentioned in the play.
Some of the most successful scenes are a duel and a funeral. I won’t say too much about these in order to not ruin the plot, as the effect of this surprise on the crowd is powerful. The duel absolutely startled me and was stunningly realistic even though I had been close enough to observe how it was all being done. In fact the fast moving scenes were very well choreographed, which is striking on the restricted space of a point. A fight breaking out from the British Museum Reading Rooms is also both funny and intricately organized.