The journey to Bridge Theatre last night was a bit of a mission, travelling from the furtherest south west corner of London, where I live, to Tower Bridge. I thought taking the Underground from Richmond to Tower Hill and walking across the bridge to the theatre, visible on the other side, was a good plan.
I hadn’t taken into account what a nightmare it is exiting Tower Hill station – confirmed by friend Elsa when I met up with her at the theatre and not a case of me being particularly stupid about finding my way out of Underground stations! Nor how painfully slow the journey would be. It took me an hour and a half door to door, though did give me some wonderful views of the Tower of London as I walked past and the undoubted delight of walking across the beautiful Tower Bridge itself, after which the theatre is named.
A better route home turned out to be the Tube from London Bridge to Waterloo and a fast train back to Twickenham, which had me home in a more acceptable hour.
I tell you all this not as a long whine about my journey on a damp December evening, but more as an expression of how brave it is to open a major new London theatre in this part of London, far away from its traditional theatreland in the West End. When I lived, long ago, in nearby Islington, the area was almost local to me, but full then of crumbling warehouses and it was, to be honest, quite seedy. Now it’s grown rather posh, the new City Hall, just a little way along the river front from the theatre, spawning a large amount of regeneration with glass-encased modern buildings, restaurants and a glittering – Hays – galleria; not quite Milan but impressive, if full, it seemed as we walked through it, of mainly the usual chain restaurants.
But what of the theatre itself, not to mention its current play, Young Marx? If the location is full of contradiction – on the plus side its proximity to two of the country’s most iconic buildings, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge – and amazing views, but against it the distance from the centre of town, the theatre itself and its current play has also been greeted with differing opinions. Even amongst just my group of friends I’ve heard the theatre described as impressive to soulless; the play ‘brilliant’ to ‘disappointing’. Thus I went along with a very open mind. What would I think?
Well for me there’s nothing soulless about the bright, high-ceilinged foyer; even new, it offers a warm, welcoming place to meet friends and have a drink or bite to eat before a play. Elsa and I even discussed that it would be a great place to meet someone for coffee or lunch during the day.
The theatre itself reminded me a large version of the National’s Dorfman Theatre – its smaller more avant–garde theatre. While the Dorfman seats just 450 people, the Bridge seats 900.
The theatre is the brain child of Nicholas Hytner, former artistic director at the National Theatre, and colleague from there, Nick Starr. It’s big and bold and offers a stage that looks flexible enough for either classics or experimentation; though the emphasis will apparently be on producing new plays. The seats are padded and roomy (unlike the uncomfortable squash in some old London theatres). It’s a functional theatre rather than a plush and beautiful one. I liked it.
So too did I like the play. It was nowhere near as funny as Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s previous One Man, Two Guvnors at the National. It seemed a slightly pale imitation, for much of the humour and the farce-like stage direction was reminiscent of that fabulous play from 2011. Young Marx, as the title suggests, follows the young Karl Marx when he arrives in London, an exile from his native Germany. Living in poverty, bad-tempered, constantly drunk, unkind to his long-suffering wife, he is saved by Engels who frequently bails him out – once literally from jail – and eventually finances his writings. It’s a story that could be grim but is told with a humour that makes it a very entertaining evening – somewhat instructive as I didn’t really know much about the young Marx – and excellently staged and acted, the brilliant Rory Kinear playing Marx. I felt rather caught between the differing opinions of it I’d heard: I enjoyed it, was engaged and entertained but I couldn’t in all honesty say it was ‘brilliant’; I wouldn’t say – as I said of One Man Two Guvnors – that ‘you really have to see it’ to anyone.
I’d also had differing opinions of the food – snacks rather than meals, provided by the well-respected St John Bakery. I’d been told it was bad and expensive; I’d heard the cakes were amazing. I thought it was simply OK and actually not expensive for London. And the glass of wine I had was infinitely superior to the rather awful wine they sell by the glass at the National.
The menu is small; this is a bar-café not a restaurant, with a few tables and some stools at various bars around the foyer. We felt with better planning they could have offered more seating. The menu offers a couple of salads as vegetarian options, along with an egg mayonnaise sandwich, but much of the menu reflects Fergus Henderson’s love of meat and offal: potted pork, a neck lamb stew, roast meat sandwiches. There’s cheese too, with raisin bread, or Lancashire cheese that comes with his signature Eccles cake (which I ate at their branch in Maltby St Market once). It’s all very English, apart from the offer of (definitely French) warm madeleines to order for the interval. We forgot about that until too late so I don’t know how they are. I did wonder if it was a theatrical ode to Proust; a little touch of drama for the interval.
I chose ‘Roast Beef with Horseradish’ in ‘St John Long Crust’ – which by any other name is a baguette. It came at £7.80. You order and pay for food at one end of the bar, with drinks, and collect it at the other end.
I guess it’s hard for a roast beef baguette to look great but I felt a slight disappointment that it was literally that – just beef and a smear of horseradish sauce with a token flurry of green inside that certainly couldn’t be classed as ‘salad’. The beef was quite well done, not beautifully rare as I like it; the bread quite chewy. It tasted OK but I’d probably choose to eat at one of the many restaurants nearby another time.
Elsa seemed happier with her ‘Potted Pork’ and said it was very nice.
We didn’t have cakes, not because of how they looked but more that we just didn’t want to and time was moving fast towards the start time of the play. A friend told me the pastries were amazing so maybe they taste more exciting than they look.
It would be interesting to go at breakfast time when they offer granola and freshly made pastries with coffee. I could be swayed by a delicious flaky croissant and excellent flat white. But overall it just wasn’t very exciting food. One can get fabulous sandwiches now, with exciting, creative fillings, and the Bridge café’s were plain boring.