Jumpers, National Theatre, Lyttelton, London

Seventies satire is surprisingly sharp

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's an analysis that doesn't stand up to a viewing of Jumpers, which was premiered 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 twofold rejection - first by his beautiful, much younger wife, Dottie, whom he has good reason to suspect is finding sexual solace with one of his colleagues; and second by those same colleagues who regard with amused contempt his old-fashioned beliefs in both God and moral absolutes. His attempts to compose a lecture on the theme "Man: Good, Bad or Indifferent?" are interrupted by Dottie's pleas for attention, and a detective following a tip-off about a murder.

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

On the whole, though, the play feels far less coherent than I remember from seeing it at the Aldwych in the 1980s, and far less meaningful. That is partly a matter of timing: George's anxieties about the decline of moral absolutes, of words like "good" and "bad", seem misplaced in an era when politicians are all too happy to throw around labels like "evil"; and the kind of penny-plain, positivist approach to morality Stoppard resented has long been out of style. One of his conceits is that Dottie gave up a soaring career as a singer because all the spoon-moon-June romantic songs had been rendered void when men walked on the moon. Now, though, we know that the songs have lasted better than the space programme, and her neurosis seems shallow.

Oddly, what has survived is the political satire. Just before the action starts a party called the Radical Liberals has swept to power in a massive electoral victory. We gather from occasional hints that its rhetoric of radicalism and benevolence camouflages authoritarian tendencies and a penchant for mindless "rationalisation": the Archbishop of Canterbury has been made a political appointment, with the job going to the party's former agriculture spokesman. After last week's reshuffles, this looks almost uncannily prescient.

The trouble lies less in the play than in the production. There is a lot of business to get through - farcical episodes with a corpse that won't stay hidden, dream-like sequences involving a team of gymnasts - and get through it is what Leveaux does. Much of the action is too slick and too fast to have real comic or emotional power. Likewise, Essie Davis's Dottie is a little too good in the musical numbers - hard to believe she's been away from the stage all these years - though elsewhere she catches all the character's neediness and arbitrariness well. Jonathan Hyde is urbanely efficient as Archie, George's nemesis and almost, but not quite, certainly Dottie's lover.

For all its flaws, the evening does have some beautifully-turned gags, whether brain-teasing or not - as when Archie tries to explain away the discovery of a murdered corpse in a plastic bag by suggesting that the man had crawled into the bag before shooting himself.

"My God," we hear George exclaim. "Why?"

"He was always tidy," comes the reply.

To 9 September (020-7452 3000)

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
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.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice