Rory Kinnear

Review: Young Marx ★★★★ - On your Marx for an exhilarating chase through 19th-century Soho (in 21st-century comfort)

Welcome to 1850 – a genuine welcome to political refugees from Europe, including 32-year-old Karl Marx. But is he in danger of outstaying his welcome as he goes on the razzle through Soho, funding his pub crawls by trying to pawn the family silver? His wife’s family that is, for Jenny von Westphalen is of aristocratic German stock, her relatives scandalised by her marriage to the penniless Jewish revolutionary. As young Marx himself puts it “at our wedding I was only invited to the reception”.

This is one of many knowing one liners from the collaboration of Richard Bean (of One Man, Two Guv’nors fame) with witty barrister/radio writer Clive Coleman. Their young Marx is a full-blooded “solipsistic, self-regarding prick”, in the words of his often exasperated, though always devoted sidekick Engels. They write Marx and Engels as a sort of early music-hall double act and Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris are perfectly cast.

Kinnear’s Marx, hair and beard wild and out of control as his behaviour, is in the throes of writer’s – and thinker’s – block. He achieves the vital balance between infuriating as the reprobate hiding in cupboards when creditors come calling, and earning sympathy as the adoring father, anxiously tending his sickly son and listening proudly to his daughter’s prowess at the piano (before the broker’s men take it, along with the rest of the family’s furniture and clothes).

Chris’s Engels, equal parts admiration and frustration, convinces as the man whose unwavering self-sacrifice will lead to years of financing Marx’s project (and keeping his family going) by slipping him cash from the till of his father’s Manchester textile factory. In Chris’s performance, he is the vital moral heart of the play too; you can believe that he wrote passionately about the plight of workers observed first hand in those factories.

For all this is fact, Bean and Coleman have mined a rich seam of eyebrow-raising biographical detail and transmuted it into precious theatrical mettle (pun intended!).

They create a vibrant messy Victorian London, peopled by rival factions of émigré activists, German spies – and ‘peelers’.  Our odd couple’s run in with one of Sir Robert Peel’s prototype policemen is an ‘arresting’ example of the writers’ anachronistic, self-referential wit. The drunken pair, caught in possession of a wrought-iron church gate, are surprised and grateful to avoid a beating. “I’ve been on a course” explains the officer.

Big set-pieces – a political meeting, a dawn duel on Hampstead Heath and best of all a deliciously transgressive brawl in the British Museum reading room – contrast nicely with these cameos and with the intimate family scenes cramped into the two tiny rooms where Marx lives with wife, children, and housekeeper Nym. Nancy Carroll is magnificent as passionate, put-upon Jenny and Laura Elphinstone’s quiet hard-working Nym, whose devotion to Marx ultimately gets physical, matches Carroll as Chris matches Kinnear.

Nick Hytner directs a uniformly superlative cast with wit, sensitivity and pace on Mark Thompson’s fold-out set in London greys and browns, lit by Mark Henderson’s atmospheric lighting and topped by Soho rooftops and chimneys, among which Marx climbs to evade the law, which still look much the same today.

It’s a terrific demonstration of the versatility of Hytner and project partner Nick Starr’s brand new Bridge Theatre and augurs well for future productions. Julius Caesar, complete with audience promenaders as the Roman mob, is up next in January. As befits this democratic vibe, seat prices start at £15 and the horse-shoe shaped, spacious auditorium is inclusive, with sightlines looking uniformly good and seats are especially comfortable. The whole is completed in golden leather and wood, and if there is currently a bit of a flow problem because the single doors to the auditorium are too narrow, this could be corrected. The public spaces are spacious, well-lit and welcoming – and ladies, you will be, er, relieved to find so many toilet cubicles with your name on them.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Manuel Harlan

Young Marx runs until Sunday 31 December. 7.45pm (Tue-Sat), 2.30pm (Wed & Sat), 3pm (Sun only). £15-£65. Bridge Theatre, SE1 2SG.

Also broadcast live to 700 UK cinemas and many more worldwide on Thursday 7 December. Visit for further details.


Review: The Trial – Judi Herman finds this updated Kafka fable suitably unsettling

Rory Kinnear as Josef K in The Trial at Young Vic, London © Keith Pattison© Keith Pattison

Franz Kafka's 1915 novella has always seemed uncannily prescient, first of life in Nazi-occupied Europe, then in the post-war Communist era. Now it assumes a whole new chilling significance in a 21st century full of mass media scrutiny, social media, online surveillance and CCTV.

Joseph K (played by Rory Kinnear) finds himself on trial for an unspecified crime. He is informed he is under arrest after a rude awakening by a pair of court officials who make off with some of his personal effects. At first it hardly affects his daily life and work, but soon righteous indignation gives way to frustration at not being able to get across his case and how it is progressing through seemingly unending layers of bureaucracy. So obsessive paranoia kicks in, fuelled by an uneasy sense of unspecified guilt, as events move inexorably – and not without a grim quirky humour – towards a dark conclusion.

The fable has proved attractive to theatre practitioners, including, notably, Steven Berkoff and now it has attracted the attention of playwright Nick Gill and director Richard Jones, himself no slouch in the staging of the dark and quirky. Together with designer Miriam Buether, costume designer Nicky Gillibrand, lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin and composer and sound designer David Sawer (sound also by Alex Twiselton), they have come up with a version that reflects the Kafkaesque in the era of Facebook and Twitter exactly one hundred years after Kafka wrote it.

Jones’s hugely accomplished and dedicated cast, led by Kinnear, skilfully negotiate Buether’s highly original conveyor belt set, moving between two banks of seating, casting the audience as jurors, and delivering rooms and offices as required. There’s something voyeuristic too about peering at these rooms furnished with coffee tables of family photographs, which also sits well with the paranoia. Best of all is that Kinnear’s increasingly-perspiring Joseph succumbs first gradually, and then faster and faster, to guilty feelings as he delves back through his life; starting with preschool toddler days, finding reasons to be guilty that would have done Sigmund Freud proud.

Kinnear gives an extraordinary performance, hugely intelligent and as open as a wound. Kate O’Flynn is wonderfully versatile as the young women and girls in this stage of Joseph’s life, from the what-you-see-is-what-you-get barmaid, who is everything from the girl next door, to sexy temptress and demanding adolescent. Sian Thomas shines in a terrific pair of turns as the stridently ineffective lawyer from hell and a scarily smooth doctor, and Hugh Skinner (the useless intern from TV comedy W1A) relishes two contrasting roles as a dangerously aspirational Number Two at Joseph K’s office and a terrifying example of what might be in store for K as an accused man almost at the end of the process on which he has inexorably been set. The rest of the cast are equally superb, working especially well in various incarnations of a sinister ensemble. Sarah Fahie's movement direction enhances their shifting stage pictures, raising the threat level exponentially as the conveyor belt rolls by.

Gill’s update mostly works a treat (or should that be a threat!). My only quibble is with the semaphore babble of K’s internal monologues, where verbs become imperatives with which he addresses himself, sentences and phrases lose the odd word and words lose the odd letter – "and" for example becoming "an". To quote the opening lines: “An almost woke ee up one morn – like baby innocent an bold, the great white hole, lord of all surveys, unslandered, clear of mind an hurt, future ahead an ee all indestructible – Josef K.”

These soliloquies are interestingly idiosyncratic, but they are more jarring than arresting (pun unintended).

By Judi Herman

The Trial runs until Saturday 22 August. 7.30pm & 2.30pm. £10-£35, £10 concs. Young Vic Theatre, 66 The Cut, SE1 8LZ; 020 7922 2922.