ONLY a decade after Anne Frank and her family were discovered hiding in an attic in Amsterdam, and perished in Hitler’s concentration camps, a dramatisation of her diary by France Goodrich and Albert Hackett won acclaim on Broadway.
The play, covering the years 1942-44, soon made its way abroad, and its influence was considerable. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, who was transported to Auschwitz, was sadly the sole survivor of the group who took shelter under the eaves of the building at 263 Prinsengracht. For others, the death camp at Mauthausen was the destination; and for Anne and her sister, Margot, transport to Bergen-Belsen, only to die of (it is assumed) typhus.
The Diary of Anne Frank well deserved a theatrical revival, and a first-rate production by Mary MacDonald for the Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth, has confirmed just how skilled this work is in evoking the characters of all eight of the Jewish hideaways.
At the outset, the dishevelled look of the building conjured the atmosphere: the designer, Gus MacDonald, who also played the curmudgeonly (and latterly thieving) Mr Van Daan, contrived to evoke with half a dozen levels the claustrophobic feel of the secret annexe. Everyone seemed to be living on top of one another, and yet the communal space was cleverly and artfully employed. Collisions of personality naturally followed.
It was Otto Frank who maintained the precarious morale and upheld the moral integrity of the group. Michael Barker brought a nobility, decency, and moral rectitude to the role, watching over the young: the flamboyant Anne, her gentle, demure sister, and the shy, cautious Peter van Daan. Otto was always ready to defuse an argument, leading the ensemble in religious devotion, and joined by his infinitely patient wife (Rosemary Gowers) in nominally sharing out, and yet more often shouldering the bulk of, the kitchen and other chores.
It was the group dynamics — often peaceable, periodically fiery — that this production captures so vividly. If their elders made the running — the constantly grumbling Mr Van Daan (”What’s for supper? Not beans again”), the objectionable (and unsurprisingly terrified) self-centred loner Mr Dussell (Dave Crossfield), and the vain and harpy-like Mrs Van Daan (Chris Ives) — it was the young people who came closest to matching the dedicated Frank parents’ life-preserving sanity.
Rob Redwood played Peter as the shy, uncomfortable teenager Anne describes in her diary. Gradually we found Anne reacting — after initial reserve — to his gentle nature. The way the pair begin to reach out to one another was touchingly done, even if not quite as explicit as in the book.
The older Frank sister, Margot (Ellie Gowers), was quiet, obedient, undemonstrative, and utterly dependable.
The focus of the show was, of course, the 13-year-old Anne, her periodic outbursts, impatience, and impish irony, her remarkable insight into the intentions and motivations of those around her. She reached deep within herself in seeking to understand the adult world. As played by Molly Ives in a beautifully observed performance, she was funny, cheeky, energetic, and endlessly optimistic. Sometimes inconsiderate or naughty, she was also profoundly sensitive.
Anne was never afraid to be herself, and young Ives’s jerky hyperactivity and inspired range of facial gestures showed us how she can also be bolshie and truculent. Quick on the draw, she had an answer for everything, as in the memorable moment when Peter warned her (of his pet), “He doesn’t like strangers.” “Then”, she said, seizing the cat, “I’ll just have to stop being a stranger.” Touché.