annie head

annie and warbucks

Alex Bourne as Daddy Warbucks appears with Annie on Bert Healy's radio show to offer a reward in an attempt to find Annie's parents. The show bizarrely included a ventriloquist on radio but don't laugh - we had Peter Brough and Educating Archie!!!! Pictures: Paul Coltas

Annie

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

LITTLE Orphan Annie has come a long way since she made her debut in Harold Gray’s comic strip in the New York Daily News some 91 years ago.

She has inspired a radio show, five films and a smash hit Broadway musical which has made a welcome return to the Hippodrome in a new production, bringing enough feel good factor to bring a smile to most curmudgeonly of faces.

The story is simple, it is 1933 and little orphan Annie, aged 11, lives in the New York Municipal Girls Orphanage, where she was left as a babe, and which is run by the drunken tyrant Miss Hannigan, who also uses the youngsters as slave labour.

The world’s richest man, Oliver ‘Daddy’ Warbucks, takes in an orphan for Christmas, and, after much angst and a search for lost parents, everyone lives happily ever after – apart from Miss Hannigan and her scheming no-good brother and his moll that is.

But it is all done with a smile on its face with bags of enthusiasm and no shortage of talent from the ensemble who double as everyone from Warbucks’ staff and down and outs living on the streets in Hooverville.

Sophia Pettit is just superb as Annie, with comic timing which belies her tender years and a voice which is about three foot bigger than she is – she can really belt out a song and she is well supported by the girls in team Waldorf, one of three Annie and team combinations used in the show.

And in charge of the orphanage is the rather terrifying Trunchbullian Miss Hannigan, played with a deliciously drunken air of debauched womanhood by Craig Revel Horwood. Miss Hannigan, Rooster and Lily

Revel Horwood is best known as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing since its inception in 2004 but in his day job he is an internationally acclaimed choreographer and director, and has made his mark in panto for the past few years, the wicked queen in Snow White being a specialty. This year he is Captain Hook in Dartford.

Djalenga Scott as Lilly, Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hannigan and Jonny Fines as small time hood, Rooster

So it is hardly a surprise that he gives a confident, if somewhat (regularly) gin-soaked performance as the ‘orrible Hannigan, showing a powerful voice, nice humour and, for Strictly fans, he makes the dancing look easy.

Incidentally, Miss Hannigan will be played on Saturdays, for obvious reasons, at the Hippodrome by Lesley Joseph.

Miss Hannigans small time hoodlum brother Rooster is played with an air of criminal arrogance by Jonny Fines, while Djalenga Scott has a suitably bimbo veneer as his moll Lily as the pair set about trying to claim the $50,000 dollar reward claiming to be Annie’s long lost parents.

Alex Bourne is a believable billionaire Daddy Warbucks who discovers he has a heart, as well as a fortune, when it is stolen by Annie and he decides to adopt her, and he is well supported by his faithful secretary Grace, a lovely performance from Holly Dale Spencer who enriches her role with a quite beautiful voice.

The show even has a presidential element with Callum McArdle who first appears as Lt Ward on New York’s finest who captures the runaway Annie and returns her to Miss Hannigan and then gets a rapid promotion in Act II to President as Franklin D Roosevelt, complete with wheelchair.

Despite the years of training, hard work, long rehearsals and talent of the rest of the cast though, the only member to get an “Awwwe” from the audience was Amber, the labradoodle, who plays Annie’s stray dog Sandy and never puts a paw wrong – although Amber does seem to expect to be paid in treats whenever on stage, presumably something to do with dog equity rates.

Colin Richmond’s clever design is made up of a frame of New York street maps and jigsaw pieces which illuminate to change the emphasis of scenes.

It leaves the stage free for easy on-off furniture such as banks of sewing machines, orphanage beds, desks and so on all helped by some clever lighting from Ben Cracknell as we are taken through city streets, a homeless camp, cinema, dismal orphanage and Park Avenue mansion.

Nick Winston's choreography is bright and cheerful giving the big numbers the big treatment and director Nikolai Foster has given the show a harder edge than the “saccharine glitzy musical” treatment of previous productions as he puts it. And although you can’t get away from the syrupy content completely, Foster, artistic director of The Curve in Leicester, has emphasised the social comment and content in the original book by Thomas Meehan and music and lyrics by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.

Gray’s cartoon strip was popular for its domestic political undertones and comment, usually to the right and overtly Republican - and against FDR and organised labour in the 1930s - political content which, unlike Peanuts and other strips, was probably a reason it never crossed the Atlantic.

Music is important in any musical and musical director George Dyer and his seven strong orchestra sound much larger than their number and carry all the songs and dances along at a lively pace. It’s a simple tale, with a happy ending and people left with a smile on their face and you can’t ask for more than that. To 31-10-15.

Roger Clarke

14-10-15

The last Little Orphan Annie strip, incidentally, was published in 2010, 42 years after Gray’s death. It was left with a final panel which read: "And this is where we leave our Annie. For Now—" . . .

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