The reputation of some productions proceeds them and, frequently and unfairly, it colours the public’s perception. Annie is nearly 40 years old and an awful lot of red-headed moppets have passed through its orphanage doors.
In the past it has been a saccharine-coated musical, filled with cute kids, a lovable dog, a billionaire philanthropist keen to adopt an 11-year-old girl (wouldn’t that raise suspicions in today’s hard, cynical post-Savile climate?) and a bunch of catchy tunes.
How refreshing then to catch this revival of Annie, now touring the UK and playing at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre, this week. Director Nikolai Foster first reinvented the show for the West Yorks Playhouse in 2011 and it’s this production which is now wowing audiences.
Gone are the oh so gorgeous little girls who regularly tug at the heartstrings. Sent packing is a little Titian-haired leading lady with freckles, curls and a smile to win a million fans, and out is the pantomime dame posing as orphanage manager Miss Aggie Hannigan. Thankfully, phew, the dog remains, and it’s a star.
What you’re left with is a harder, more relevant and serious story that is a far more attractive proposition, and not nearly so sugary, than the original Broadway & West End musical.
Little Orphan Annie was a satirical comic strip of the 1920s and ’30s which featured our eponymous heroine, a victim and metaphor for a nation’s people on their uppers, and her dog, Sandy. Their adventures saw them battle city hall, corruption, Communism and, of course, the Depression caused by the Wall Street Crash.
Fifty years later Thomas Meehan reimagined the youngster for a Broadway show, and, together with Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, they created possibly the first ever Marmite musical that you either oohed and aahed over or gagged at the sucrose overdose.
Foster’s revival takes us back to basics. There are still the kids but these are more realistic and from the Oliver Twist school of hard knocks. They’re tough, street-wise, and, despite living under Hannigan’s appalling regime, surprisingly upbeat.
The most rebellious of them is Annie, now a smart-talking 11-year-old with attitude, who is determined to buck the system and find her parents.
By an amazing stroke of luck she is selected to spend two weeks over Christmas with the world’s richest industrialist, Oliver Warbucks, who, despite the Crash and the closure of his factories, is still phenomenally wealthy.
Warbucks wasn’t born to privilege but is a product of the American Dream. Born in New York’s notorious Hell’s Kitchen he dragged himself up and, through sheer iron will and hard graft, became a millionaire, then billionaire, who has the ear of presidents and kings.
Annie soon has the lonely tycoon utterly charmed and he wants to adopt her but she is hell bent on finding her real parents, who left her as a babe in an orphanage and vowed one day to return.
There are constant references to America’s struggle to climb out of its economic disaster which saw more than 50m without work and millions more starving and living on the streets.
But in-between are a collection of sensational musical numbers including Easy Street, Tomorrow, Maybe and Hard Knock Life – seen in context their lyrics make far more sense – and some thrilling dance routines, wonderfully choreographed by Nick Winston.
Performances from both the adult and juvenile casts are fabulous. Alex Bourne, who has appeared in pretty much every major West End musical at some time or other, is younger than previous “Daddy” Warbucks but, nonetheless, entirely credible and very charismatic.
Holly Dale Spencer plays his PA, Grace, and she has a superb singing voice. The super efficient, bubbly blonde, must surely win Warbucks’ heart, doesn’t she?
Lesley Joseph shrugs off her age (she’s an astonishing 70) to give a remarkable turn as Miss Hannigan. Here is a gin-swilling villain who doesn’t play it entirely for laughs. Hannigan is a grasping opportunist looking for an easy ride through life and if that means babysitting a bunch of whining kids then she’ll do it.
Joseph’s New York accent isn’t entirely strong, and she frequently drifts into East London-Bronx, but this lovely star more than makes up for the lapses with a sharp, nicely balanced performance.
Jonny Fines and Djalenga Scott, as Hannigan’s ruthless brother, Rooster, and his girlfriend Lily, are old-school bad’uns who are prepared to stop at nothing to get their hands on a $50,000 reward being offered by Warbucks. Fines, particularly, plays a menacing psychopath, in sharp contrast to the show’s endearing cast.
There are three groups of kids performing in rotation but last night we had (I hope, if I identified them correctly), Team Tiffany, headed by Madeleine Haynes as Annie.
The girls are professional stage school stars, and Haynes already has a CV that includes West End in shows like Matilda, Les Mis and The BFG. They are all very animated, right on song and full of energy but there are a number of times when their strong New York accents are hard to understand. I missed most of what they said in the opening.
The dog, of course, is a huge star. Labradoodle, Amber, plays Sandy to perfection, running on when required and posing when needed (although he had the itchies last night and turned his back on the audience to have a good scratch).
An engrossing story that has been thoughtfully reinvented with much less treacle.
Remaining 2016 tour dates
March 28-April 2, Empire Theatre, Sunderland April 12-16, Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin May 16-21, Edinburgh Playhouse May 30-June 4, Milton Keynes Theatre
Annie finds a future on easy street, thanks to West Yorks Playhouse’s hard-edged and engrossing revival now touring the UK.