After seeing Young Marx, the latest offering from the acclaimed local troupe Ronin Theatre, this past Wednesday, I was surprised to find it had debuted in 2017. The script, written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman (the duo behind the hilarious high-farce One Man, Two Guv’nors) had a distinctly noughties feel to its prerogative, particularly in characterizing its eponymous anti-hero.
The play is set in Soho, London in 1850, where a mid-thirties Marx and his family have fled to freedom. We follow Marx as he drinks away his family’s food money, pals around with his moneyed bestie Friedrich Engels, and laments his long-suffering wife Jenny’s threats to leave him. Off-stage, the Marxs’ infant child can be heard suffering from a dangerous case of croup, cared for both by Jenny (Ellen Publicover) and the Marx family’s devoted housekeeper, Nym (Ania Marie Ward), whom Marx proceeds to romance. While the production has cast a load of talented female actors across the roles, the only female characters in the script are Marx’s wife, his lover/servant, and his sunshine-y but otherwise non-descript daughter (Katie Rennie). They are given little personality outside of his orbit.
Essentially, the Marx we meet here is the archetypical manchild, whose selfishness is ostensibly made forgivable by his genius (and in this case, passion for workers’ rights). This is dramatised via several impassioned speeches, dotted amongst the gags and sarcasm. But the shifts in tone (sometimes within a single scene) don’t blend well, and the addition of a late-in-the-play tragedy feels forced and manipulative and further muddies the pallet.
The acting, however, was superb across the board. Ashley Harvey’s Marx and Josh Wedge’s Engels had a delightful buddy-cop chemistry, but it was the side characters who truly stole the show. Alison Stibbe as Emmanuel Barthelemy and Matilda Morrissey as Konrad Schramm both lit up the stage in roles that could have been forgettable in other hands, and Sarah Milne Das managed to mine laughs and distinction from six separate characters.
This is the third production by Ronin Theatre I’ve seen, the other being serious, emotional dramas (Dawn King’s Foxfinder and Lucy Prebble’s The Effect), with which they excelled. There’s a moving director’s note in the programme that describes the company’s vision for the play as being one of the layers - the joke-filled surface contains a universal story of family and passion underneath it. We can’t see enough conflict in Marx to truly sympathize with him, so the stakes feel low.
There are suggestions of this sort of Hamiliton-esque humanisation at times, but ultimately, the narrative is simply not strong enough to supportwo-and-a-half-hour runtime. There’s far less broad humour here than in One Man, Two Guvors - but that does not automatically translate into emotional depth.
Ultimately, a very game and giving cast and director are let down here by a sketchy, shapeless script. If you're a big history fan, you may find your fascination with the source material outweighs any frustrations with pacing. Similarly, if you enjoy cosy, warmly amusing yarns, this may also please you. While this production didn’t quite hit the Marx for me, I look forward to seeing what this talented group of people do next.