Review by Samela Harris
Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s dramatisation of The Diary of Anne Frank is a solid old history play, well known in theatre circles as a long one. This should have been the clue for The Rep director Geoff Brittain to give it a thrust of energy or a bit of a cut to fully engage a modern audience. The arduous pace of this new production is just about the only thing wrong with it. Of course it could be argued that the audience needs to suffer for its art, to feel the ennui to get a taste of the long and strange time that Anne Frank describes in hiding from the Nazis from 1942 to 1944 in Amsterdam.
One hopes that, as the play runs in, the action and inflections may pep up.
Ole Weibkin has devised an extraordinarily complex and labyrinthine set to depict the office building annex in which two Jewish families plus the dentist Dussell were confined. The set reaches from the rig to the wings to the apron and back again, seemingly dark, dense and dusty and claustrophobic as well the hiding place must have been. Therein, Richard Parkill’s lighting completes the mood, dull when the world is working in the offices below, bright only in the secrecy of night.
The production has been well cast and, despite the pace, there are some lovely performances. There are the seasoned skills of Nicole Rutty and Therese Hornby as sweet Mrs Frank and insufferable Mrs Van Daan, along with the strengths of Tim Williams as kind Otto Frank and Tim Taylor as the unpleasant Mr Van Daan with Chris Leech most effectively stress-inducing as the dentist Dussell.
Genevieve Venning is endearing as Anne’s quiet big sister, Margot, while Ronan Banks has just the right adolescent awkwardness as Peter Van Daan. Heroic from the outside world, the protectors of the hidden Jews come and go with rations and news of the war. Stuart Pearce plays good Mr Kraler with Esther Michelsen delightfully simpatico as Miep. They appear and disappear from below, arriving each time on stage with a convincing sense of having climbed some pretty awkward stairs. But it is the young Henny Walters in a big wig of glistening black hair who charms and compels as the famous child diarist.
Henny is still at school and is a clearly a talent with a shining future.
There are some oddities to the production, not the least of them the amount of time the director has his lead with her back to the audience. One sees her close up on a screen over the blackout window now and then through the play delivering verbatim extracts from her diary. The audio-visual fades in and out are awkward, but one feels the intention to segue back into the live action. There also is the mixture of accents. The young characters are performed without accents at all. As the audience becomes consumed in the tensions of the lives depicted, the details of accents fades away – a successful gamble by the director.
The production wins in the end. Final curtain generates resounding applause.
It is not a great play but it is one of the important stories of history made all the more heart-rending by being told by a doomed young girl so full of life and hope. The first night audience was mainly Repertory subscription patrons – but this play really needs to be seen by secondary students.