It’s the 40th anniversary of Tom Stoppard’s musical comedy drama, Jumpers. Stoppard’s work is often admired for its intelligence and looking back at this play about philosophy and acrobats, it’s no wonder. It would be a lie, however, to say that the audience aren’t left wondering what on earth Jumpers is actually about.
In an interview with The Telegraph when Jumpers was revived in 2003, Stoppard contested the description of his plays as clever, saying “it makes me uneasy because I’m being overestimated”. Yet Jumpers is a play that perhaps overestimates its audience.In the middle of a whodunit, George Moore (Toby Eddington), a Professor of Moral Philosophy is composing his speech ‘Man: Good, Bad or Indifferent’. He purports to logically defend the existence of a God, and does so for the majority of an hour in a monster of a monologue, delivered with versatility by Eddington, who sweetly inhabits the convincing persona of stuffy rhetoric professor.
Sadly, Eddington’s talent still isn’t enough to prevent the first half from dragging along in comparison to the second. George struggles to compose his speech as the moral environment around him seems to crumble; science has allowed man to not only walk on the moon, but murder on it. Then there’s his unlikely wife Dotty (Emily Shaw), a mentally disturbed musical theatre star. Is she sleeping with the Vice Chancellor of the university? Even more drastically, did she kill an acrobat – or worse, Thumper, their pet hare? The resulting surreal whodunit strangely parallels the grander questions of George’s philosophical enquiry and practically mock him in this unlikely comedy.
The grandiose subject matter of the production feels squashed into the Tabard Theatre’s space. The acrobats – an assembly of the more gymnastic members of the philosophy department, and more philosophical members of the gymnastics team – are yellow, bouncy personalities, but don’t have much room to exemplify acrobatic prowess. The general yellow-ness of Christopher Hone’s design dates the production back into the seventies, so seemingly contains itself to being a revival over a new interpretation of Stoppard’s play. Steve Elias’ choreography is likewise dated, but these lighthearted moments within the play do come together with an overarching sense of elegance, however quirky.
Shaw is a surprising performer, whose cheeky personality and gorgeous voice don’t suggest her startlingly tense speeches. Malcolm Freeman is also a charming master of ceremonies, as Vice President Archie who also happens to dabble in psychology, law, literature, gym and acrobatics, of course. These characters are a farcical presence in Jumpers in contrast to George’s, and if these scenes weren’t surreal enough, then the ending sequence definitely is, as an agnostic archbishop, astronaut and Tarzan appear to support Archie’s speech. The problem with Loftin’s production is that when it’s random it’s random, and when it’s dry it’s dry, and there is no real sense of flow between them which is confusing to watch.
The more I think about Jumpers, the more things I realise it says. Stoppard’s script is complex and witty, which is satisfying, yet entertaining at the same time. There are a lot of loose ends as Jumpers raises more questions than it answers. But the first lesson I learnt in philosophy was that it’s possible to doubt everything, and the form of Stoppard’s play reflects that. However, I struggle to doubt that audiences won’t find the play a little aesthetically tacky, beyond the acting not wholly doing Stoppard’s script justice.
Jumpers is playing at the Tabard Theatre until 30 September. For more information and tickets, see the Tabard Theatre website.