JOYCE MCMILLAN on ENGELS! THE KARL MARX STORY at Discover 21, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 27.11.13.
2 stars **
IN THE great brutalist 1970’s-style office-block that is St. Margaret’s House, London Road, something new is taking shape. Over the last few years, a group of young shoestring arts companies have taken up residence there, in a part of the building called Arts Complex; and now, they have launched a new studio theatre space, Discover 21, with about 40 simple tip-up seats facing a classic black-box stage.
It’s the kind of initiative Edinburgh theatre needs, short as it always is of cheap, cheerful city-centre spaces for experimental work. Sadly, though, there’s nothing remotely experimental or radial about Ben Blow’s short four-handed student spoof Engels! The Karl Marx Story, the first play to appear in the newly renamed space. In 55 minutes or so of heavily jocular anachronistic dialogue – set in Manchester, Cambridge and Paris – Engels! explores the idea that Karl Marx was a drunken, violent, charismatic layabout, interested only in advancing his own reputation on the back of intellectual work carried out by his friend and cash-cow Friedrich Engels, a serious-minded rich kid, and by Marx’s favourite prostitute Molly Pinchbeck, a sharp political thinker.
Somewhere among the blizzard of half-baked jokes about Groucho, etc., there might have been an interesting comedy about how Marxism differs from more moralistic forms of socialism; some of the acting is admirable, not least from Matthew Jebb as the long-suffering Engels, and Rowan Winter as several minor characters. In the end, though, this play is dedicated to the orthodox post-1980’s notion that revolution is impossible, because people – above all revolutionary leaders – are basically monsters of selfishness and greed. It’s a reactionary idea, and a commonplace one, not nearly as funny as the company seem to think; they call themselves Unknown Quantity/ Dubious Quality, and on this occasion, that tells you almost everything you need to know.