Staging a production of The Dairy of Anne Frank can be a risky business: her story is so familiar that it has become a metaphor for the cruelty and futility of war.
The tragedy of the tale often seems to invite a mawkish sentimentality, but to stray down this route fails to do justice to Anne herself, who bore her years of captivity with astonishing forbearance for one so young.
That the Duns Players succeeded in avoiding this is a tribute to the light touch of directors Eloner Crawford and Peter Lerpiniere, and to the cast’s ability to translate their vision into a moving but well-paced piece.
The device of using two actors to play Anne Frank worked surprisingly well. The replacement of the younger child Anne (Susannah McEwen) with the older, taller Anne (Maddy Lerpiniere) seemed natural, coinciding as it did with Anne’s words (admirably read by Eliza Master) relating to her feelings about her physical development.
This was also due in no small part to the skill of the two actors: McEwen as the younger Anne gave an impish and enchanting performance, as notable for its comic timing as for its physicality. Lerpiniere presented the older, more reflective Anne with considerable grace and charm, whilst losing none of the feistiness of the younger Anne – both these actors displayed great promise.
Similarly, Barnaby Bevan gave depth to the awkward and unprepossessing Peter Van Daan, reminding us all of the wretched self-consciousness and doubt which so often dogs all but the most confident of adolescents. The part of the sainted Margot Frank can often seem one-dimensional, but Rachel Gray succeeded in presenting her as a calm presence whilst simultaneously hinting at her frustrations both with her situation and her challenging sister.
There were notable performances too amongst the adults of the household. John McEwen as Otto Frank produced a solid, calm and measured performance throughout the captivity scenes, but always sufficiently nuanced to hint at the burden of reponsibility. His post-war return to the attic was arguably the most moving scene of the piece.
Alex Watson gave a rounded account of the solidly maternal Mrs Frank, until the scene in which she totally loses control over the revelation of Van Daan as the bread thief. It requires skill not to overdo this moment of pent-up frustration and rage; Watson hit exactly the right note. Ben Foreman gave an assured and often hilarious portrayal of the irascible and spoilt Van Daan, and was the perfect foil for Emma Taylor’s appropriately whingeing and idiotic Mrs Van Daan. Jerry Ponder excelled as the neurotic and infuriating Mr Dussel, whilst Emma Lindsay and Barry Jones gave empathic performances as Miep Gies and Mr Kraler.
Special mention should be made of the set: it is difficult to recreate the claustrophobia of the Franks’ attic on a stage which is necessarily open at the front, but his was cleverly achieved by the clear delineation of the tight ‘bedroom’ areas and also by the use of the black ‘walls’ which seemed to presage the doomed future. The bedrooms allowed for intimate conversations to take place whilst life could be seen to go on beyond their boundaries.
Subtle lighting also maintained an atmosphere of gloom and containment, while the sound effects conveyed the fear which could rarely have been far from the residents’ thoughts.