The Bridge Theatre is just about perfect in its newness. The leather seats are comfortable and not built for thin, malnourished Victorians riddled with rickets. They allow more leg room than one is used to elsewhere; the auditorium is raked so that there is no chance of someone blocking your view of the stage, and on press night they provided scrumptious chocolate brownies at the interval.
The first play in this theatre is Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s Young Marx, a lively comedy about Karl Marx, who I thought would be a serious man and not a fellow for laughter and jokes. In fact, I found it hard to believe that any of this revolutionary ribaldry was true until I read the programme notes.
This political panto, this manifesto of mirth, this farce of theoretical fervour charts some of the 33 years the young Karl Marx spent in London, in Soho and mainly in abject poverty while he was writing Das Kapital and getting drunk.
The scene was set in London almost immediately with fake fog and a Cockney pawnbroker asking if he could ‘have a butcher’s’ at an item brought into his shop. Soon there was a Keystone Kops chase, many opening and closing of doors, windows and wardrobes, and before long the one-liners came and came and came in this rollicking romp of a show, that also included the added bonus of a comic cameo from Charles Darwin in the British Museum library! Yet, and most importantly, beneath all the frivolity, there was a message to remind us of the desperate and the downtrodden.
When Marx, in a rare moment of sobriety, considered his life of living off the generosity of others, ’brutalised’, his friend and patron, Friedrich Engels, told him, sternly and squarely, that he had not seen the true misery and inhumanity that he had witnessed in the cotton mills and textile factories of Manchester, never mind lived it. In a speech that quelled any laughter in the audience for quite some time, we all inwardly came to terms with how wretched life was for many – and not that long ago. This, though, is the only real nod towards to the Karl Marx that we think we know, because Young Marx has us laughing at his drunkenness, his living beyond available means and his adultery, and perhaps that is okay because we know, from our position 160 years on, what his achievements eventually were. And because maybe comedy is one way to get people thinking about his ideas again.
Personally, I was more interested in Engels and the strange double life he led, but Young Marx is a play worth seeing to get the other side of Karl Marx. A live broadcast will be transmitted to 700 UK cinemas on December 7th.
Young Marx is on at The Bridge Theatre, One Tower Bridge, Bermondsey, SE1 2SD from 18 October – 31 December. Tues – Sat 7.45pm; Wed, Sat, Sun matinees 2.30pm
Phone: 0843 208 1846