It is to my great shame that the last LUTG show of my three years at Lancaster was also the first I have attended. ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ brought the curtain down on a great year for the society in which they have staged classics such as Much Ado About Nothing and 1984, as well as originals like House With a Red Door and The Glass House.
The Diary of Anne Frank is only the second of this year’s productions (after Parade) to be based on a true story, the details of which are familiar to everyone reading I’m sure. In 1947, Otto Frank published a manuscript of his daughter Anne’s diary, which she had written between 1942 and 1944 while her family and several others were secreted from the Nazis in the annexe of a house in Amsterdam. Anne’s diary represents optimism in extreme conditions, which is one reason why it has endured throughout the years.
The play begins as the Franks and the Van Daans move into the annexe, where Anne’s kindly father Otto (James Bone) explains that they must endeavour to be as quiet as possible – no using the toilet, walking in shoes, or speaking loudly between 8am and 6pm. Under such conditions, relationships soon begin to fray. Hermen van Daan (Connor Axiotes) grows quickly frustrated with Anne’s talkativeness, while the arrival of Albert Dussel (Mike Narouei) increases the strain on the already stretched group.
It’s interesting in a student production for all the characters to be of such different ages, but it was something that never bothered me. Anna-Rose van der Wiel brings a believable youthful innocence to Anne. Certain famous extracts of Anne’s diary may lead one to believe that she was some sort of wunderkind philosopher, a poet of the human soul. But other extracts show that she was just a teenage girl – struggling with algebra, arguing with her parents, falling in love. “Their lives weren’t how they ended, their lives were how they were lived” was the quote that stuck with me from interviewing the cast and crew last week. Just because we know their tragic ends doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate these characters as human beings, rather than as victims.
In Broadway productions, the set is often a multi-room doll house-like affair, which is not possible on a student budget. However, the more compact set-up actually works surprisingly well. The small space helps to create a sense of claustrophobia, with at least seven characters on stage at any one time. It’s easy to see how this environment breeds enmity among the inhabitants. Holding the group together is Otto, whose love for his family and general good-heartedness is brilliantly brought across by James Bone. His calming presence is much-needed as the group threatens to tear itself apart.
This play teaches us that even in the saddest of stories there are moments which are humorous and heartfelt. The first act concludes with a particularly heart-warming sequence in which an excitable Anne gives presents to the other inhabitants of the annexe, before they join together to sing a song for Hanukkah.
The joy is tinged, always, with poignancy, particularly when they celebrate upon hearing news of the D-Day landings. For a moment, they believe that things may return to normal, and that they may be able to resume their lives. Knowing that they were caught, less than a year before the Netherlands was liberated, tinges these moments of joy with incredible sadness.
Director Aurelia Gage can feel justifiably proud of her final LUTG production, and this pride should be shared by all members of the cast and crew. There were a few minor slip-ups but nothing that ruined the immersiveness of the performance. For those of us who knew Anne Frank and her family only as victims of a horrible atrocity, this paints a much more vivid, rich image of life. You never forget who they are or what happened to them, but you allow yourself to be swept up in their lives as ongoing narratives, not as doomed crescendos towards tragic ends.
I hope that others do not make the same mistake as I and put off going to LUTG shows for so long. When I interviewed the cast and crew of 1984 a few months ago, they were effusive in their praise for the society. “I’m just proud of what we do”, James Bone told me. “Most people wouldn’t put on four shows a year, and we put on thirteen”. LUTG is one of the great things about Lancaster University, and should not be taken for granted.