Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Anne Frank

The Diary of Anne Frank

Talisman Theatre Company



AS the current agonies of the innocent victims of Syria remind us, every death in wartime is a tragic loss: even for the young Wehrmacht soldier trapped in Russia and perishing of cold, there is always a family, a parent, wife or child waiting at home for the terrible news.

Somehow the diary of Anne Frank has captured the public imagination in a way perhaps no other written testament of that period has managed.

Written between 1942 – the year the Jewish family moved into the rat-infested garret beneath the roof of Mr. Kraler’s office – and 1944, when the family were discovered, it retails the toings and froings, often unshod and on tiptoe, of both Anne’s family (mother, father, older sister) and the other four – the Van Daan family, which includes 16 (latterly 18) year old Peter, for whom Anne’s sympathy is gradually, ever so tentatively, turning to an incipient romance, his irritable parents, and the grumpy (patently frightened) dentist, Mr. Dussel, with whom Anne has an ongoing running battle.

Anne’s diary – both in the original Dutch (the Frank family moved to Holland from Germany to escape the Hitler pogroms) and in this memorable and astute adaptation for the stage by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, have dated not one bit.

The couple have preserved so many aspects of Anne’s description of the Frank family’s ordeal – the claustrophobia of their elevated prison, so oppressive to the other members, but which 13 year old Anne’s optimism refuses to bow to, in fact sharing the Stoic tolerance of all three other members of her family; the human tensions which blow up suddenly and subside (almost) as quickly; the minor jealousies and simmering resentments; the charming outbursts of laughter; the generational differences; the cheeky exuberance with which Anne asserts her independence and, as often as not, wins through.

And now comes the Talisman theatre company with a wonderful, inspired staging that does supreme honour to the adaptation, captures the spirit of this doomed enterprise (the hideaways will be discovered in autumn 1944 and all, with the exception of her dignified father, will perish in the concentration camps: Anne and her sister Margot in Bergen-Belsen), and depicts with admirable honesty and empathy the pathos, deprivation and utter vulnerability of the incarcerated victims, who are unable even to move normally until 6.00 atAnne and trapped companions night, for fear of being spotted by the inquisitive – and potentially dangerous - work force below.

Scarlett Behl (who also plays Anne Frank), Ellie Gowers (Margot Frank), Rosemary Gowers (Mrs Frank), Michael Barker (Mr Frank), Rob Redwood (Peter Van Daan), Dave Crossfield (Mr Dussell), Gus MacDonald (Mr Van Daan) and Chris Ives (Mrs Van Daan) the trapped residents in the Amsterdam attic

This intelligent staging was by the husband and wife team Gus and Mary MacDonald, both stalwarts of the Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa. Gus MacDonald’s excellent set – he also acted - seemed to provide everything one could want. Here was a paradox: divided into separate living areas for each couple or individual, the feeling of restriction was palpable; yet advantages flowed: somehow, director and designer managed to make use of the differing levels – an admirable part of the overall plan – to create nooks and crannies (for example, the cramped living space of all three members of the troublingly self-centred Van Daan family) while at the same time, through skilful blocking of characters, turning the central space treated as their living room into a surprisingly spacious-seeming acting area, through which different characters seemed to flow without (unless deliberately) bumping into one another.

The materials used – ropy stairway, darkened side annexes, a restricted sink area – the province of Mrs. Frank but also her husband, to which both individuals seemed to escape – rough and ready bedding, rickety beds offering scant privacy – all contributed to the feeling that we were in an uncomfortable garret which everyone struggled to make home, yet which indeed acquired a marked feeling of some kind of real home; as if during two long years of restriction one might as well make the best of it. This is part of the reason for the positiveness of Anne’s diary; she observes, she records, she periodically grouses or complains, but whether aged 13 (at the start) or 15 (at the arrest) she has this bubbling optimism which makes her version of events feel so joyously free as air.

This was a production equally made by the cast: so well pieced together were they, and fitted to their roles, each, in quite different ways, brought a vast amount to the production. The moral high ground is held by the Franks, and especially by Otto, the father, who ultimately will survive Auschwitz, the only member of the family left alive.

You can see where Anne gets her amiable, and essentially honest, character from: Michael Barker took the role, and right to the end where one sees him offer up a Jewish blessing, Barker brought to the part a scrupulous nobility and decency, which essentially infects the whole imprisoned ensemble with a sense of right and wrong, of duty to one another, and of a shared responsibility to prevent anyone being driven to the edge in their anne and peternightmarish situation. His dignity and patience, his long-sufferingness and unending concern for others, whatever the circumstances, made this a performance to cherish. One felt for him, the way he made the care of others and setting an example his priority.

Molly Ives (Anne Frank in this performance) and Rob Redwood (Peter Van Daan)

This caring outlook is shared by his wife (Rosemary Gowers), who supports him in every respect (save one significant dispute near the end); shares out the domestic tasks but in fact takes the lion’s share herself; and who, when she reprimands Anne for overexcitedness or wilfulness or cheekiness (‘I don’t want to be dignified. I only want some fun!’), actually understands what it is to be a fenced-in teenager. Gowers brings Mrs. Frank a demure and self-effacing character who in fact has the best intuition of all present (though her elder daughter, Margot, has inherited some of it). She gives and gives, and never asks anything in return. If Mr. Frank is the pivot on which their safety hinges, his wife (‘You must not answer back: they are our guests’) is the quiet rock who ensures that the long days have their gentle routine, which is part of what keeps them all sane.

Gus MacDonald does more than design: he takes the role of the most truculent of the older members. Mr.Van Daan grumbles and mutters and finds fault with everything and everyone, but especially with Anne who finds a pert answer for every unfair complaint – she attempts to match his brazenness with her own. ‘What’s for supper? Beans! Not again.’ ‘You are aggravating…Don’t you ever get tired of talking? Can’t you sit still for five minutes?’ You in ways feel sorry for the Van Daans –MacDonald brings a bluff burliness to his role; plodding awkwardly up and down stairs to their quarters, he clearly creaks in the process. But it opens the door to one of the important sequences, when Van Daan is spotted stealing food from the collective kitchen area. He is lucky to be allowed to remain; it is this that generates the one weighty argument between Otto Frank and his wife.

Chris Ives plays his wife as a splendidly bolshy, self-centred creature almost as crabby as him, not least when fussing over a fur coat which her exasperated husband finally sends to be sold. Otto Frank knows that the Van Daans - much as they deserved ejection - would have to take their 16 (presumably now 18) year old son Peter, and that this will devastate Anne. The younger members of the cast in this Talisman staging were a worthy match for their elders. Not least one should applaud Ellie Gowers, who brought to the role of the older sister, Margot, a wonderfully demure, longsuffering, gentle personality, utterly supportive of her mother, indeed of both parents. She is a complete opposite to the vivacious Anne, whom she understands implicitly and intuitively, and her presence brings a calm that offsets the petty squabbles when they arise. Not that her sister is fair to her: ‘Margot, Margot, Margot, that’s all I hear,’ she wines.

Peter is a law unto himself. Shy, gawky withdrawn, perhaps quietly intellectual, he hides for much of the time in his tiny room upstairs, in the company of his cat, to which he is much attached, and which he has been allowed to bring with him. Rob Redwood presents him as  something of a puzzle, an anomaly clad in ill-fitting hitched-up trousers (perhaps the norm for wartime Holland): Mary MacDonald oversaw the wardrobe herself, anne, sister and motherwith Margaret Wilkinson, and they came up with some delightfully apt costumes, above all for the vivacious, clothes-conscious Anne, who on mother’s instruction beforehand has donned several layers of costume so as to reduce the chances of a suitcase arousing suspicion on arrival at their hideaway. The somewhat sloppy attire of Mr. Van Daan, for instance, and the rather prim gear of the gloomy Mr.Dussell, fitted the parts perfectly.

Ellie Gowers (Margot Frank), Rosemary Gowers (Mrs Frank) and Molly Ives (Anne Frank).

As he transits from sixteen to eighteen, Peter gradually begins to respond to the growing Anne, and also fends for himself, taking on his somewhat gross and ill-mannered father. Redwood caught this growing process attractively. Peter has to be both awkward, pensive and a little intriguing for Anne to begin empathising with him. The development of the relationship - as related in the original diary - is perhaps a bit underplayed in this script, but one relishes the tentative way in which the two gradually open up and come to respect the privacy but also the warmth and accessibility of each other.

Mr. Dussell (Dave Crossfield) is a bit of a bad egg. A professional man (dentist) who ought to know better than to complain about the circumstances they all share, to harp on as if were sole victim about the cramped and dispiriting conditions; and to pick arguments with the admittedly provocative Anne and spoil the mood of the party, he has little to commend him, apart from occasional insights. Crossfield made of him a perfect curmudgeonly figure, socially uneasy, somewhat hunched when in a bad mood, sometimes like Peter keeping himself to himself, sometimes making forays into the group and engaging with the other adults, but scarcely doing anything to contribute to the chores or the bonhomie, which - with Mr. Frank’s encouragement - breaks out at 6.00 some nights. 

Two outsider characters provide their link with the outside world: the kindly woman Miep, who brings food and everyday things to meet their needs – though even with this, rations are low and scant enough to cause the insiders discomfort and occasional friction – and Mr. Kraler. Miep (Alice Scott) is adept at bringing good cheer on her various arrivals: she too is a calming influence, and provides a bit of supportive sanity for the Frank parents on her visits. Kraler (Jeremy Heynes) is generous character who has risked life and limb by furnishing the family refuge. The factory and offices below are his, and the care and consideration he exercises on his appearances are exemplary. Heynes played him with his usual insight: Kraler has a wide range of hand gestures, moves and shuffles, evoking the unease that underlies his outwardly reassuring manner. It is to him that falls the job of buying off an employee who has heard noises above and threatens to expose the whole entourage to the police or Gestapo.    

But at the heart of this delightful and moving play is the diarist, Anne (Molly Ives, doubling during the week’s run with Scarlett Behl). Ives’ performance – her first in a major role iMr Franks and Miepn a serious Talisman play – is simply entrancing from beginning to end. Her moods swing with the hour: she is mischievous, never missing a chance to tease here two bêtes noires, Mr. Van Daan and Mr. Dussell. Despite sibling rivalry, she recognised Margot’s support. She turns what could be a hive of claustrophobia into a cheerful playpen, and while constantly happy to be cheeky accepts parental rebuke gracefully. In another mode, she ascends to look out of the window high up and marvels at the natural beauty and human life outside.

Michael Barker (Mr Frank) and Alice Scott (Miep)

Her changing face, endlessly inventive, was a revelation. It is Anne who thinks at midwinter of fashioning gifts for everyone, including those she cannot bring herself to admire. Some of her diary was spoken by her (Ives) over a darkened stage: throughout her performance, including here, her enunciation and characterisation, beautifully lucid, could not have been bettered. Even in the circumstances, Anne brings a fair measure of wry humour: as when Peter begins to show an interest, resulting in the most minimal of kisses, she ironically observes ‘Maybe I’m just taking the place of his cat’.  

Mary MacDonald’s production is a gem from start to finish. Where she notably scores is the scenes where the pendulum suddenly swings – from joy and optimism (the news of D-Day) to sudden panic, the formal blessing pronounced by Otto to unexpected anxiety, and vice-versa. None of the moves were forced: all seemed absolutely natural, and the use she made of the various nooks and steps up or down and sudden changes of pace made ideal use of her husband’s splendidly envisaged, versatile set, thus yielding a beautifully conceived, shrewdly moved and constantly absorbing production. The characters somehow flow across the stage, in a range of intermingling patterns, subtle blockings or solo dawdlings. The excellence of the cast and the intelligence of the staging drew us in: we were in that awful, restricting garret, witnessing the intrepidness of the Frank family and the angsts of the others as if we were ourselves there in 1942, 1943 and 1944. Even the final arrest and abduction was not overstated: the sinister, hollow calls up the stairs from below of ‘aufmachen’ – ‘open the door’ said enough. Reality descended. The painful idyll was over. To 08-10-16

Roderic Dunnett


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