Jumpers (Lyttelton, National Theatre) Mother's Day (Royal Court) Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (Royal Court Theatre Upstairs) Same Time, Next Year (Prince of Wales) Anastasia (Cambridge Theatre) Anarchic and surreal though it often seems, Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, which I welcome back to the National Theatre repertory with a couple of handsprings, is a tidier play than it looks. As one who previously enjoyed it immoderately, and yet also as a man who tends to recoil from the dramatic equivalent of a Dali painting of a lamb chop, an ingrowing toenail and a floating eye, I'm glad 1 discovered that on a second viewing. I don't say I should have enjoyed it less if I hadn't, but this way I feel less guilty about it.
Ostensibly there is but a tenuous connection between the lecturer in philosophy in one room, preparing an argument in support of moral absolutes, and his wife's frenzied efforts in another to dispose of the corpse of a logical positivist, while at the same time entertaining the university vice-chancellor in dishabille. There are also the moon landings, shown on a giant television screen, the gymnastic displays by most of the university philosophical faculty, the incidental celebration of a 'coup de ballots' by the Radical-Liberal Party, the casual introduction of an agnostic archbishop and a police inspector who turns up to investigate the murder of the logical positivist. It is unquestionably a busy little number, and my first impression of the piece, back in 1972, was that it had more decoration than substance, and that the decoration was more chaotic than coherent. I'm glad I kept this under my hat because it sprang, I think, from a misapprehension of the main centripetal influence of the work.
Bemused by Michael Hordern's remarkable realisation of the philosopher, George Moore (not the author of the Principia Ethica, of course, another George Moore), in his tormenting struggle satisfactorily to establish the existence of God to validate his philosophical position and his moral criteria, I took this, and the sprightly sendup it embodies, to be the essence of the play. Hordern's performance in the present revival is not less inspired, skilful and magnetic, and the words Stoppard has given him in his tangle with such absurdities as a world without beginning—considered in relation to its more acceptable corollary in the infinite, a world without end—do, indeed, constitute the central argument, but they do not dictate the shape of the play, The moon landings do that. When their debilitating effect on a number of theological concepts—to say nothing of the song lyrics which now stick traumatically in the throat of George's wife, Dorothy, a recently retired singing star—is taken as the starting point, the umbrella under which the rest of the play's events and propositions are huddled, there may still be diversions but there are no inexplicable irrelevancies. That leap into space, that 'giant step', and the consequential somersaulting revisionism among orthodox philosophers—and songwriters—provide not only the launching pad for the play's extravagant flights into surreal action, but its unifying raison d'être.
Failing to pick up the hint in Stoppard's lifelong preoccupation with the moon (he will call a character 'Moon' at the drop of a hat, his earlier works include M is for Moon among Other Things and Another Moon called Earth, and his only novel is Lord Malquist and Mr Moon), I previously had only glimmerings of this moonshine, but give me time and I'll always catch up. At least I always liked the play, and it may be that, this time around. Peter Wood's production, aided here and there by a touch of lucid rewriting, is more illuminating, holding a more certain balance between the vital dialectics and the theatrical razzmatazz, matching the balance held between comedy and anguish in Hordern's marvellous performance. In other respects, I fear I thought the acting less impressive than before. I missed Diana Rigg and Graham Crowden as the wife and the vice-chancellor, Julie Covington and Julian Glover seeming to me seriously miscast in these roles on the scores of, respectively, sensuality and panache; but I was sweetly entertained by Bernard Gallagher as the police inspector, whom he and Stoppard make a first cousin to the one in Joe Orton's Loot.
This was enough to set me upon a conjecture about the result if Stoppard, in a more than usually frivolous moment, were to dash off an entire play in the style of the late Orton. He would, I suspect, make a more endearing job of it than David Storey does in Mother's Day. In this tedious and grubby exhibit, as apparently aimless as it is witless, Storey has mistaken content for style, providing outrage without humour in a household half-wittedly devoted to incest and rape and their unseemly like. Considering the piece along with T. Zee, its immediate predecessor on the same stage, I most devoutly hope that it is not the top of a barrel that the Royal Court is scraping.
Things are fortunately worthier in the Theatre Upstairs, where the Joint Stock Company is presenting Caryl Churchill's Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, the title taken from a seventeenth-century Digger pamphlet and the work itself lining-out in documentary-declamatory terms those early manifestations of revolutionary socialism which perished in the disenchanting aftermath of the Civil War. The primary purpose of the exercise, if I rightly guess that it is to project the dilemmas and repressions of 300 years ago into our own century, is not, perhaps, accomplished; but as a selective documentation of a vital fragment of English social and political history that receives only flimsy attention in the textbooks (a transcript of the Putney Debates of 1647 provides the thematic core) it is rivetingly instructive. I can't say it isn't preachy, and I daresay it would be no worse for a leavening of humour, but that is probably too much to ask in the theatre of the earnest left where it might be thought to compromise the seriousness. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark, the admirable cast of six—playing a multiplicity of parts without regard to gender—at least imbue the reportage with a species of dramatic life.
Meanwhile, in the commercial West End, there are items new and old. The former is an American comedy, Same Time, Next Year, by Bernard Slade, in which Michael Crawford and Frances Cuka play a married couple (married, that is, to other people) who have been shacking up together for just one weekend annually for the past twentyfive years. In six scenes, punctuated by the pop songs and political pronouncements appropriate to the time, the play discovers them in their romps every five years, cataloguing the joys and vicissitudes of adultery. There are some sticky moments, but each scene has a tolerable joke or two.
Like The Fourposter, which charted the ups and downs of a marriage with the same sentimental relish, it might well turn up as a musical one day. So, for that matter, might Anastasia, which would probablY benefit by the addition of a few songs, If any successor to Ivor Novello can be discovered. The 1953 melodrama, fashioned by Guy Bolton from Marcelle Maurette's version of the Anna Broun/Anderson story, gets a rather humdrum revival without such trimmings, offering Nyree Dawn Porter stretching a small and not exceptionally pliant talent in the role of the girl who may or may not be the lost Grand Duchess, Peter Wyngarde snarling and pirouetting sinisterly as the rascally Russian expatriate prince who promotes her claims, and Elspeth March bringing a commanding dignity to the wan proceedings as the Dowager Empress.