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
Arts and Entertainment

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital