Theatre: Flat-footed farce

JUMPERS BIRMINGHAM REP BIRMINGHAM
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The Independent Culture
TO THE uninitiated, Jumpers, the title of Tom Stoppard's 1972 classic, might seem to hold out the prospect of an evening's punning fun with Antipodean knitwear. Watching Bill Bryden's revival at the Birmingham Rep, you often feel that, on the bounciness front, that would be preferable.

The play takes the "drama of ideas" form to cannily parodic length with its tumbling troupe of philosopher-acrobats, its hare and tortoise duo who both come to a sticky end in the cause of demonstrating Zeno's paradox, and its background of a moon landing that appears to smash traditional moral certainties by displacing man from "the still centre of God's universe". But the spry mental gymnastics are not best served by a production which, in terms of dramatic vigour, can barely manage a basic forward-roll, let alone the demands of a gravity-defying somersault.

One of the main problems is the misguided casting of Malcolm Tierney in the dauntingly demanding central role of George, the unfashionable Professor of Moral Philosophy who is vainly trying to compose his contribution to a forthcoming debate on the question, "Man: Good, Bad or Indifferent?", while his musical comedy star wife struggles to conceal the bloody corpse of his opponent in the marital bedroom and a dystopian Rad Lib Party has its victory parade in the streets after a coup d'etat masquerading as an election.

George is the play's hapless spokesperson against the farcically chilling ethical relativism of the new regime and the energising comic frustration in the piece comes from the way George is constitutionally incapable of developing an argument without getting hopelessly entangled in the treacherous ropes of irrelevance, qualification and inconclusiveness (doubts, say, over whether to refer to "my friend the late Bertrand Russell" or "my late friend Bertrand Russell" so as to put the accent on posthumousness rather than on unpunctuality).

Looking more like Central Casting's platonic idea of a Merseyside gangster than a humanist academic, Mr Tierney dismally fails to demonstrate the writhing, flustered anguish in George that can drive the play forward. As you watch him supposedly wrestling with ideas, the words "Geoffrey Howe" and "dead sheep" spring to mind. The only wonder is that his trusty stenographer doesn't drop off.

The vibrancy level is not helped either by Ruari Murchison's design which, instead of animating the proceedings with a revolve, offers a two-tier set, the study and hall surmounted by the plush feminine bedroom that is the terrain of George's wife Dottie, excellently played with just the right mix of the showbizzy and the shrewd, daffiness and nervous despair, by Samantha Spiro. This cumbersome arrangement, which involves the laboured swishing to and fro of curtains and hampering hikes up and down a spiral staircase, leaves you enough time to pick quarrels with the logic of the farcical business and is one of the many ways this staging makes a diabolically agile play look distinctly creaky about the joints.

Paul Taylor To 17 July, 0121-236 4455

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