Book: Thomas Meehan
Music: Charles Strouse
Lyrics: Martin Charnin
Director: Nikolai Foster
Musical Director: George Dyer
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
Over the years, some musicals gain an unfair reputation for being saccharine sweet confections. Often the fault lies with film adaptations of the original stage material, the hard edges of the live performance softened for cinema audiences. It’s a fate that often befalls The Sound of Music but, despite recent updated cinematic outings, also Annie.
For many, raised on the film versions, this is nothing more than a paper thin tale of an annoying chipper ginger haired girl. What Nikolai Foster’s fiesty revival, based on his West Yorkshire Playhouse production, does is to breathe new life into this well known, but often undervalued, piece and make it seem fresh, new and surprisingly topical.
The story may still be paper-thin, an unscrupulous orphanage manager mistreating her wards and one girl making the best of a chance of escape. However, strip away the usual froth and frippery and there’s a darker look here at an American society facing the upheavals of austerity, something that rings many a bell in these belt-tightening times. Song though is a great mood enhancer, and the feel-good energy on display here is enough to cheer even the most down at heal.
Foster’s inspired direction has moved the piece away from its traditional staging, working with designer Colin Richmond to create a stylized world that pays more than a passing nod to the tales’ original comic strip origin. Jigsaw pieces, mirrored in Ben Cracknell’s lighting plot, frame the stage to highlight Annie’s fractured history but also give the piece a vibrancy and sense of place. They also allow for swift scene transitions, keeping the pace high.
It’s a vibrancy that’s reflected in Nick Winston’s scintillating choreography. Witty and eye catching and with plenty of nods to the classic Broadway musicals, Winston’s routines provide the beating energetic heart to the piece.
With such fancy footwork, it is appropriate then that Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood leads the company. No stranger to directing musicals himself, Revel Horwood’s musical theatre pedigree shines through as a disturbingly convincing Miss Hannigan. His Hannigan may be less panto Cruella de Ville as some previous incarnations, but it’s a creation of gin-soaked beauty. Fleet of foot, he dances up a storm and his stage presence is nothing short of mesmerising.
This is, of course, more than a one man/woman show and the entire ensemble company are clearly having fun with the piece. A titular rôle is a big burden for any actor but when such an iconic rôle falls onto a young performer the challenge is tougher. For 12 year old Isabellla Pappas (one of three Annie’s who rotate the rôle) it’s a challenge more than met. Belying her years Pappas commands the stage, delivers an Annie that melds vulnerability with a fiery red head temperament that shows this young woman has had to grow up fast.
There’s a touching chemistry between Pappas and Alex Bourne as her new adoptive ‘Daddy’ Warbucks and its a chemistry Foster’s direction makes the most off, drawing out the heartbreak and sadness in the piece alongside the irresistible flicker of hope.
Miss Hannigan of course needs accomplices to plot with and there’s a deliciously show-stopping rendition of Easy Street courtesy of Revel Horwood and Jonny Fines and Djalenga Scott as small time crooks Rooster and Lily. It’s a moment that captures the essence of the show – numbers that wouldn’t seem out of place in a 1950s Broadway Blockbuster but given a slight modern twist.
Those familiar with the film and TV adaptations will be humming along to Tomorrow and Hard Knock Life and the aforementioned Easy Street, but George Dyer’s deft musical direction breathes new life into less familiar numbers such as N.Y.C and You Won’t Be An Orphan For Long.
There are moments when the exuberance of the performances come at the expense of clarity and diction but part of that can be put down into setting into a new venue on tour. It’s a small niggle though in a production that drags Annie out of the smaltzy, slightly mocked, musical category, dusts her off and gives her a bright shiny new comfortable coat. Who know’s what marks Revel Horwood’s fellow judges on Strictly would give Miss Hannigan’s set up but it is sure to be more than ‘seven’.
Runs until 22nd August then continues to tour | Photo: Paul Coltas