The benefits of being a brand new theatre is that you can address a lot of the niggles people have with older theatres: uncomfortable seats, lack of space for refreshments, bad sight-lines and not enough ladies loos etc. Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr's Bridge Theatre beautifully situated on the opposite bank of the Thames to the Tower of London seems to have made a pretty good job of it.
Walking in, it is light and airy without feeling stark and impersonal and I imagine the spacious cafe/bar area will double as a nice daytime hangout. The seats are comfortable (a bit like those at the Royal Court) but sight-lines will have to be an ongoing test as the configuration is going to change. For this production we sat in the middle of front row and although the stage is reasonable high, I've sat closer to higher stages, so it was perfectly fine.
And as for the ladies loos, there are lots of them and there is even an 'in' and 'out' door to the main facilities similar to The Globe which means a better flow if you'll excuse the pun. Only one minor quibble is that the coat/bag hooks on the back of cubicle doors are really high - I had to stand on tip toes to reach it. I know I'm short but even so it was the primary topic of conversation as people were washing their hands.
And what about the play? It would have been easy to open with a relatively safe classic but Hytner and Starr are setting out their stall by choosing a new play by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. Obviously they aren't strangers, Hytner having directed Bean's plays England People Very Nice, One Man, Two Guv'nors and Great Britain and this has the potential to be a crowd pleaser.
It's a bit of a romp in fact, telling the story of the time, the 30-something Karl Marx's (Rory Kinnear) lived in exile with his family in Soho. The central narrative is his journey from disillusioned genius, thinking of jacking it all in to work on the railways, back to the writer, thinker and activist he is famed for.
He has a very humble home, an intelligent wife Jenny (Nancy Carroll) whose patience is sorely stretched, loyal friends like Engels (Oliver Chris) and house keeper Nym (Laura Elphinstone) as well as dimwitted admirers such as Schramm (Eben Figueiredo). He also has his enemies - the spies from home and there are those who suspect someone close to him is being duplicitous.
It is a story packed with much humour and wit but also laced with tragedy. Hytner and the cast brilliantly lift the humour from the script in which Bean and Coleman have inserted clever contemporary references. In fact you can see Marx's ideology in current movements of thinking and politics. Equally Marx and his friends' status as a political exiles - asylum seekers if you will - has contemporary parallels. Some among his followers want to take more extreme actions to get their points across while others don't want to draw unwelcome attention that might jeopardise their status.
Rory Kinnear plays Marx's flaws, charisma and humanity with perfect balance, and demonstrates superb comic timing as do the rest of the cast.
It is a play of great fun and thinking and an appropriate production with which to open the Bridge Theatre. I'm giving it fives stars and I'm already looking forward to seeing it again. It's two hours 20 minutes long and you can see it until 31 December.