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Jumpers

Tom Stoppard
RNT Lyttelton
(2003)

It is interesting to compare this 30 year-old play with Sir Tom's philosophical trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, which played at the Olivier Theatre last year. Jumpers is quite obviously the play of a younger man but there is no other British playwright alive who would allow his or her characters to expound philosophical theories at such great length. In reality, there is probably no other playwright who could get away with it, let alone attract 1,000 people every night to hear his views.

It helps a great deal that he can attract the best actors of their generations. In the original 1972 production, the main parts were played by Sir Michael Hordern and Dame Diana Rigg, two years later it was Paul Eddington and Felicity Kendal. Now we see arguably the finest actor of his own generation, Simon Russell Beale as the Professor of Moral Philosophy, George Moore, and Essie Davies as his mixed-up wife, Dorothy.

It is quite hard to relate the plot of Jumpers in an intelligible way. This is partly because it is not entirely intelligible but also, since the playwright is so keen on metaphorical obfuscation and loves to make his audiences work for their pleasure, a straight description sounds ludicrous.

Jumpers is part detective story and to this extent is reminiscent of Sir Tom's earlier play, The Real Inspector Hound. An acrobat has been murdered at a party given by the manically depressive former nightclub singer, Dorothy Moore, to celebrate the accession of a new Radical Liberal government. It is not clear who murdered him but a detective, a great admirer of Miss Moore (played by Nicholas Woodeson), is determined to get the bottom of it.

A second element is that of old-fashioned variety show as we see performances by yellow clad acrobats and hear a few songs or parts thereof. These are sung by the smokily seductive Miss Davies who on occasions looks like a young Prunella Scales.

At the same time, George Moore - the name is not coincidental - a moral philosopher, is writing a speech for a major debate with his logician rival. Somewhere along the way, we find out that the dead acrobat and the logician are the same man. By then we are lost in the depths of Sir Tom's mind as he helps us to understand a series of deeply important issues that affect the way in which we live and understand the world. The most important of these is "what is or what are God?".

Russell Beale is excellent as the shambling and badly dressed George, a man who, because he loves his wife, puts up with being cuckolded by the university's vice chancellor, played by the urbane Jonathan Hyde. George also somehow manages to deliver lengthy speeches about complicated philosophical, mathematical and moral matters with crackling wit and perfect comic timing. This is no mean feat although a National Theatre audience is possibly more likely to appreciate this kind of intellectual debate than any other.

Under David Levaux' direction the pace is always fast, assisted by Vicki Mortimer's design containing an almost dizzying revolve that spins between George's dowdy office and his glittery bedroom, which includes a much used bed that looks more like a shower.

By the end of the play, one is greatly challenged and educated, amused and probably confused; and strangely, this heady combination can prove extremely satisfying.

The performances of Simon Russell Beale, as one would expect, and Essie Davies, if one ignores her accent which drifts between Australian and Received English, are both excellent. For those who like Stoppard's work and are willing to put some mental effort into their theatre going, Jumpers will prove to be one of the delights of the summer.

Philip Fisher