WWhat we most need now amidst the gloom, uncertainty and random acts of violence is a feel-good show featuring a plucky orphan, a shaggy dog and an uplifting message of cast-iron hope and optimism and we certainly get it with Nikolai Foster’s new production of the 1977 Tony award-winning musical, Annie (Piccadilly Theatre).
Set in 1930s New York during the Great Depression, the story centres on brave young orphan Annie who is forced to live a life of misery at Miss Hannigan’s orphanage. Her luck soon changes, however, when she is chosen to spend a fairytale Christmas with famous billionaire, Oliver Warbucks. Meanwhile, Spiteful Miss Hannigan has other ideas and hatches a plan to spoil Annie’s search for her true family.
This is the first London production of the show since 1998 and its message is both human and timely, reinforced by the words ‘the sun will come out tomorrow’ from the song Tomorrow, a hymn to sunny optimism which has long become one of Broadway’s greatest spiritual anthems. The show admittedly starts on rather as a twee note but gradually gains momentum as it goes along and manages to be affecting without being mawkish. The sometimes uneasy juxtaposition of the gritty setting and the gorgeous melodies of Charles Strouse, of which Hard Knock Life, Easy Street and Tomorrow are among the most familiar, with their witty, memorable lyrics by Martin Charnin, is perfectly judged.
Colin Richmond’s designs manage to be both glittering – the bright, coloured lights that woke New York City are dazzling – and simple at the same time. I also particularly liked Hooverville, where the homeless hoof alongside ramshackle cars and a glowing brazier in an evocative scene swiftly assembled by the cast.
The choreography by Nick Winston is inventive and tightly danced and the singing, under George Dyer’s direction, is both audible and heartfelt. Ben Cracknell’s lighting adds considerably to the overall effect, creating quick changes of mood and atmosphere.
But it is the first-rate cast that really brings this musical so vividly to life. TV comedienne and star of Call The Midwife, Miranda Hart, making her West End debut, is spot on as the formidable comic harridan Miss Hannigan. She has a voice that lends considerate punch to Hannigan’s big party piece about her hatred of little girls. But she is at her best when mostly being herself sinking to the floor slowly to take a slug of gin or kissing Oliver Warbucks’ head in awed admiration. Madeleine Haynes, playing Annie on the evening I attended, oozes sparky confidence – she alternates with two other young actresses in the title role, while Alex Bourne brings real emotion and a fine tenor voice to the role of Warbucks. There is also cherishable comic character work from Jonny Fines as Hannigan’s crooked friend Rooster, and Djalenga Scott as his partner Lily. And let’s not forget Annie’s constant companion the dog Sandy, played by Amber who gives a scene-stealing performance.
This indeed is a show for all the family, full of infectious vitality that asserts the value of courage and endurance, just as much as it celebrates unconditional love.
Showing at the Piccadilly Theatre until 6 January 2018Last modified: April 6, 2021