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)

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