Jumpers, Lyttelton, National Theatre, London

Stoppard's verbal gymnastics made for Beale but less bounce left in 1970s philosophical concerns

The conventional complaint about Tom Stoppard used to be that his plays were all intellect and no heart: the turning point in his career supposedly being Arcadia, in 1993. It is an analysis that doesn't stand up to a viewing of Jumpers, which had its premiere in 1972. The play's central character is George Moore, a moral philosopher struggling under the burden of not being the George Moore who wrote Principia Ethica.

George is just about clinging on to his self-respect in the face of two-fold rejection - first by his beautiful, much younger wife, whom he has good reason to suspect is finding sexual solace with a colleague; and second by those same colleagues, who regard with amused contempt his old-fashioned beliefs in God and moral absolutes.

Although the play's theatrical razzle and fast-paced philosophical quibbling are impressive, what stays in the mind is the pathos of George's situation, and the faltering eloquence of his conviction of the reality of God. Nimbly intelligent, self-doubting, humorous - the part might as well have been written for Simon Russell Beale (and it is perhaps relevant that he played Hamlet not so long ago). His warm, naturalistic performance gives David Leveaux's production most of its shape and weight.

But while Leveaux stage-manages the physical and verbal gymnastics well enough, the play feels far less coherent or meaningful than I remembered. That is largely a matter of timing: George's anxieties about the decline of moral absolutes, of "good" and "bad", seem misplaced right now.

Having said that, in other respects the play remains surprisingly topical. Back in 1972 Stoppard was jabbing at political parties hiding arbitrary, authoritarian tendencies behind a rhetoric of radicalism and benevolence: he had the Archbishop of Canterbury turned into a political appointment, and the job given to the party agriculture spokesman. Last week's cabinet reshuffle was almost a replay.

The philosophy has worn less well. The kind of penny-plain, positivist approach to morality Stoppard resents has long been out of style. One of the conceits of the play is that Dottie, George's glamorous wife, gave up a career as a singer because the fact of men walking on the moon had destroyed all the spoony-moony-June romantic songs for her.

Now we know that the songs lasted better than the space programme, and her neurosis seems contrived. Essie Davis is excellent as Dottie, catching all her neediness and arbitrariness; if anything, she's too good in the musical numbers - hard to believe she's been away from the stage. Jonathan Hyde is urbanely efficient as Archie, George's nemesis and, probably, Dottie's lover.

Whatever the play's limitations, it is still a marvellous display of Stoppard's verbal ingenuity, with some beautifully contrived cross-purposes and neat gags - as when Archie tries to explain away a murdered professor in a plastic bag by suggesting that the man had crawled into the bag before shooting himself. "My God, why?" asks George. "Hard to say. He was always tidy."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian, actor and broadcaster Sanjeev Bhaskar

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor