Review: Leopoldstadt, Wyndham’s Theatre

The cast of Leopoldstadt

The cast of Leopoldstadt - Credit: Archant

Tom Stoppard’s possibly final play about a Jewish family living through troubled times in early 20th Century Vienna has a cumulative power that leaves you awed and tearful

The cast of Leopoldstadt

The cast of Leopoldstadt - Credit: Archant

Tom Stoppard's latest - possibly final - play lacks his usual linguistic and formal trickery. Instead, it's a straightforward, linear piece, with an immense accumulative power that leaves audiences awed and tearful.

It's also a deeply personal work. Stoppard only recently learned about his Czech-Jewish ancestors, many of whom perished in Nazi concentration camps.

Once his mother had escaped with him to England, she "drew a blind" over her former life.

The play follows an extended Jewish family in Vienna - from affluence in 1899 to 1955 and the aftermath of unthinkable horror. Textile magnate Hermann has married Catholic Gretl, and is optimistic about assimilation.

They have a casual upper-middle-class status: waited on by servants, their home featuring a grand piano and chandelier.

Over time, home, status and safety are stripped away - indelibly demonstrated by Richard Hudson's design and Neil Austin's lighting. Between scenes, Adam Cork's soundscape and Isaac Madge's black-and-white images plunge us into the past.

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However, the first half is overloaded with exposition - usually from men - and the mammoth cast and multi-generational tale make it hard to track who's who.

Patrick Marber's direction is effective in the lovingly chaotic ensemble sections; the speeches are too static.

But a gripping second half demands that you bear witness to the Holocaust's atrocities. It's stark, simply told, and unbearably moving. Current events - the rise of anti-Semitism and nationalism, our shameful treatment of refugees - add further potency.

There's excellent work from Adrian Scarborough as the gradually disillusioned Hermann, Faye Castelow's restless Gretl, Caroline Gruber's outspoken grandmother, and Ed Stoppard's mathematician, clinging to logic in the face of senseless persecution. Sebastian Armesto, Jenna Augen and Luke Thallon handle the complicated 1950s cross-currents - including Stoppard interrogating his own adopted British identity - with supreme delicacy.

This is a play that demands we remember - and, by remembering, honour those we lost.