If Jerry Springer - The Opera that recently transferred from the National to the West End drags the commercial theatre kicking and screaming into the language of the gutter, a revival of Tom Stoppard's philosophical vaudeville Jumpers leaps to a more elevated place as it makes a similar journey across the river. In the process, it raises the game and tone entirely of Shaftesbury Avenue and its environs.
Like Jerry Springer, this isn't necessarily for everyone, but for those who crave an audacious and intricate play of verbal as well as physical gymnastics, it's just the ticket.
Seeing David Leveaux's production for a second time - with only one major cast change that has Nicky Henson replacing Jonathan Hyde as the university vice-chancellor with more than a passing interest in his philosophy professor's wife - one marvels anew at the dexterity of both the writing and the performances.
While Simon Russell Beale is born to play the forever doubting but brilliant George, Essie Davis absolutely stuns, whether singing songs on a crescent moon or nakedly fetching on her bed.
NOTE: The following review dates from June 2003 and this production's original run at the NT Lyttelton. For current casting information, see the show listings.
Even as Nicholas Hytner's new regime at the Royal National Theatre is blazing vivid trails for new work, it's intriguing to notice that two out of the first six shows that have now opened actually re-visit past National Theatre hits, originally produced a year apart in the early 70s.
First there was the legendary 1971 production of The Front Page, which has just returned in the re-worked shape of a stage adaptation of the film His Girl Friday that also derived from that classic 1920s Broadway comedy. Now we have Tom Stoppard's Jumpers that originally premiered at the National in 1972, when it also still based at the Old Vic, before being revived in 1976 as one of the first productions in the then new theatre on the South Bank.
The play was an instant contemporary classic, though it has only had one commercial London revival since, when its original director Peter Wood returned to it for a West End production at the Aldwych in 1985, starring the late Paul Eddington and Felicity Kendal. So its reappraisal is long overdue, especially one seen through the new directorial eyes of David Leveaux and offered as a vehicle for the gifted Simon Russell Beale to make another of his distinctive marks with.
He plays George Moore, a professor of moral philosophy who, in the midst of trying to write a lecture, has to contend with interruptions from a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown (his wife Dottie, a former musical comedy actress), the presence of a corpse in the cupboard (McFee, one of the university's gymnast philosophy team), all the while searching for a missing hare, Thumper.
The dazzling, sometimes dizzying, intellectual comedy that emerges is a play of both verbal and physical gymnastics, with Stoppard harnessing what have now become his familiar comical delight in wordplay and debate to a farcical plot from which a flurry of unruly ideas and arguments erupt. The audacity of the concept - with a team of ten tumblers turning the play into a circus, while Dotty's routines turn it into a musical at other times - is amazing, but also frequently perplexing.
What exactly does all of this mean? It's probably best not to ask, but simply to allow the playful agility of the writing sweep over you. And Leveaux's production - though somewhat clunkily designed by Vicki Mortimer to move on a revolve from George's study to Dotty's bedroom - just about keeps up with it, even if you don't always.
Russell Beale is, as ever, compulsively watchable as he tangles himself in ever-more convoluted theories; but it's Australian actress Essie Davis who steals the show as his troubled wife, in variously undressed splendour and more uncertain musical pitch.