Powerful Chesterfield play has lasting impact

Every now and again, a drama production of such formidable power comes along that it stays in the mind for days, perhaps weeks or longer

Tuesday, 9th April 2019, 5:13 pm
Updated Tuesday, 9th April 2019, 5:19 pm
Alicia Hodgson, as Anne Frank, and John Belli, as her father, Otto Frank
Alicia Hodgson, as Anne Frank, and John Belli, as her father, Otto Frank

For Hasland Theatre Company audiences this week, The Diary of Anne Frank is certain to have that lasting impact.

Here is a story of high emotions, looming tragedy, fragile humanity, a delicate thing needing sensitive handling, and thanks to director Val Ryan, it was given precisely that.

She was greatly helped in this account of Jews hiding from the Nazis in wartime Amsterdam by a fine cast, a wonderful set and stunning lighting to make the secret refuge all the more authentic.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Anne Frank was just 13 when she, her older sister Margot and parents Otto and Edith took shelter above his spice company's offices in July, 1942, as the Germans turned the screw on Jewish residents. The Frank family had fled to Holland from Germany nine years earlier when Otto sensed the dangers ahead from the rise of Hitler.

Shortly after going into hiding, they were joined by fellow Jews Herman and Auguste van Daan and their teenage son Peter, and then by dentist Alfred Dussel.

Alicia Hodgson, just three years older than Anne was when the family began their isolation, played the role with the full gamut of emerging adolescence, yet with a maturity of approach. She was, by turn, excitable, irritating, hopeful of a better future, dreaming of being a writer, loud and reflective.

She read excerpts from her diary in a pool of light piercing the dark concealment, at first relishing “an adventure, romantic and dangerous at the same time”.

Muffled sounds from the offices below seeped up through the floorboards, as the fugitives had to remain silent during working hours for fear of giving themselves away.

But once the evening came, life resumed in the claustrophobic surroundings, with understandable arguments, complaints about the diet of beans, potatoes and pickled kale, the awakening feelings of Peter and Anne for each other, and yet, humour and compassion, too, and a moving celebration of the Jewish feast of Hannukah.

Striving to keep some sort of equilibrium was Otto, another accomplished performance by John Belli, while David Brooks, as Herman, played the role with the right degree of antagonism and abruptness.

Lindsay Coombs, as Margot, Louise Sweeney, as Edith, Dylan Whitehead, as Peter, Ann Hawkswood, as Auguste and Ed Telfer, as Alfred, also transformed their characters into living, breathing flesh and blood, no more so than when they were marched up the aisle, right past us, by the German officers who were tipped off about the hiding place.

For two years they had been cared for by a small group of helpers, two of whom, Meip Geis and Mr Kraler, feature in the play, with Leila Hunt and Tom Bannister shining as figures of hope and humanity in the darkest of days.

We all knew what was coming as the end of the performance drew near, even if the fugitives had earlier shrieked with delight on hearing the news of the Allied invasion of France, bringing hope of their own liberation.

Within months, seven of them would be dead, victims of starvation, disease, the gas chamber or a forced march. Only Otto survived. Each one reappeared on stage as he described how they died, clutching Anne's diary, which Meip recovered from the hideaway after it was raided. “All that remains,” he told us.

It was all he needed to say.