Review of Annie at the Piccadilly Theatre
"The sun will come out tomorrow
Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow
There'll be sun"
That hymn to sunny optimism in the face of depression-era New York, where homeless people huddle in self-made refugee villages called Hooverville, has long become one of Broadway's greatest spiritual anthems; as sung by an 11 year-old girl who has escaped the city orphanage where her parents long ago abandoned her, but promised to return to pick her up, it has a special piquancy.
And hearing it again, as Annie returns to the West End just two days after a major terrorist attack rocked London, it's a message I want to hear and even more to believe. As it is, it made the sun come out again for two-and-a-half hours as I watched it, and for that I'm extremely grateful.
The 1977 Tony winning Broadway musical may be more than a little bit old-fashioned and even corny, but it wears its sincerity totally on its heart; and director Nikolai Foster honours that sentiment (and sentimentality) with real integrity, flooding the stage with warmth and, of course, that pack of joyous orphans. The show's sometimes uneasy juxtaposition of the gritty setting and the gorgeous melodies of Charles Strouse with their wittily memorable lyrics by Martin Charnin has been beautifully judged: Foster neither drowns it in earnestness (as did the last Broadway revival by director James Lapine) nor overplays the show's sunny disposition.
It also has a major surprise at its centre. The show is being sold on the star billing of Miranda Hart as Miss Hannigan, the fearsome comic harridan who presides over the New York orphanage, making her musical theatre debut. To say she's no singer would be an understatement -- but with her 6'1 frame and fierce presence she nevertheless owns the stage. And the audience simply adore her: from the moment she makes her first appearance and a cheer goes up, she has them on her side -- even as the character she is playing is repellant, an evil bully more interested in where her next drop of gin is coming from than looking after the children in her charge. (On Hart's TV show Miranda that made her a star, she has always specialised in women who don't fit in, and Miss Hannigan joins that catalogue).
But then, like Miss Trunchbull, the terrible headmistress in Matilda that is Annie's natural, grittier heir in the musicals department, we all love a recognisable villain like her. And like Matilda, the real star of the show is the little girl who is playing the title role. Three feisty young girls share the role in the West End; on press night, Ruby Stokes was utterly tremendous and full of brassy confidence.
So was the troupe of fellow orphans, played by one of three alternating teams. But there's also slick and sensational work from the adult company, too, expertly drilled in Nick Winston's witty choreography; and particularly brassy, witty work from Jonny Fines as Rooster and Djalenga Scott as his partner Lily.
Alex Bourne brings an imposing presence to Daddy Warbucks, gradually seeing his reserves fall away in the presence of Annie, with Holly Dale Spencer as his forever loyal secretary Grace Farrell exuding warmth, too.
The West End has another welcome hit. And the production is a testament, once again, to the vibrancy of Britain's regional theatres: it originated at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2011, and has been much toured nationally and internationally since. But with its spectacular set, with the frame of a bridge overhead and falling pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, it looks brand-new.
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