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  • Flora Gosling

Review: Marx in London! (Theatre Royal Glasgow)

Updated: Mar 2

A farce that fails to hit the Marx

Twenty minutes before Tuesday’s performance of Marx in London I ran into someone I met once several years ago. We managed to get through the entire conversation and walk away before I realised I had completely mistaken him for someone else, and that next to nothing I said to him made any sense. Accompanied by a laugh track and an internal dialogue voice-over I thought to myself it resembled something from a sitcom – but I was wrong. I think we are often inclined to imagine our lives are a farce, particularly when everything seems to go wrong all at once. The trouble is that dragging reality into the realm of comedy is not a natural fit; often what is funny or interesting in real life is only funny or interesting because it happened in real life. Even so, it is easy to see why Jürgen R Weber thought that Karl Marx would make an appropriate subject for a comedy. His time in London while in exile was nothing short of disastrous: he was plagued with debts, theft, spies and usurpers all while trying to write Das Kapital. In Jonathan Dove’s opera the highlights from his stay are compressed into one calamitous day in August 1871.


Roland Wood plays Marx, and while his vocal performance is unquestionable his reservation in the role is slightly surprising. It lets the lunacy of the scenarios speak for themselves without turning him into a cartoon character, but it means he is easily overshadowed. But perhaps that is an intentional choice on the part of director Stephen Barlow since, even though this is ostensibly an opera about Marx, more attention is given to the other people in his life. Rebecca Bottone gives a wonderfully lively performance as teenage daughter Tussi, who is stroppy and girlish and immediately brings life to the first slow scene in the Marx residence. But as likeable as she is, you don’t expect to spend close to a third of the run time with her. The same can be said of Orla Boylan as Karl’s formidable wife Jenny. At first, she is something of a villain, arriving in a puff of smoke with bags in hand and a scowl on her face like a malicious Mary Poppins. But in a softer moment we see her hardship she sings about her lost children; a tragedy from Marx’s time in London that isn’t quite as comedic. She is a layered supporting character, but an unwelcome lead. Watching her and Helene (Lucy Schaufer) drink their sorrows away drags the already dwindling pace to a halt.


This is not to say that the scenes with Marx are notably better than the ones without, but it is quite literally what we came for. As it is, the whole performance feels unbalanced and slightly desperate in places. It doesn’t help that the comedy only occasionally hits its mark, especially the forced physical comedy. In the first half the scattered laughs suggest the sympathetic audience are trying to find it funnier than it actually is. In the second half it starts to find its focus, and in turn find its humour. Wood, and indeed the performance as a whole, are at their best when either showcasing Marx’s charisma and philosophies, or mocking his hypocrisies, and the second half has plenty of both. We also see the pace pick up as the loose ends are tied up and the seemingly separate strands are justified, but by then it is a little too late. A denouement is only satisfying if the characters it concerns have always been integral to the story in one way or another, rather than having their presence explained only as the performance is wrapping up.


Photo Credit: James Glossop

It can almost go without saying with Scottish Opera that the orchestra conducted by David Parry is superb, and the design by Yannis Thavoris is a marvel. The sight of a winged Friedrich Engels riding in on a penny farthing to save the Marxs from financial ruin is jaw-dropping. My amazement for the visuals was only equalled by my longing that it accompanied a stronger story. Marx in London! has its moments, but they are too often buried within scenes that do not feel relevant or scenarios that don’t feel silly enough to feel worthwhile. Barlow’s vision is clear as day, and the performance is filled with fantastic performances. But despite their efforts, Dove’s opera cannot reconcile the unhappy marriage between comedy and reality. Three stars.

Whispers from the Crowd: "It was a bit weird, I felt a bit carsick during the piano scene. The orchestra was incredible." "I thought it was fabulous! It was completely bonkers. [Baylan] was just something else."

Marx in London! will play at Theatre Royal on the 15th and 17th of February, and at Festival Theatre in Edinburgh on the 22nd and 24th of February.


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