You know the old showbusiness maxim, ‘never work with children and animals’? It extends to reviewers too. Children and animals on stage put your average critic, and I am certainly one of those, in a bind. Imagine I were to praise this latest incarnation of Annie with its cast of kids and impeccably trained labradoodle. Well, I am guilty of a most heinous crime – sentimentality. Criticise it? Then I am a grumpy old cynic. What to do? Well, for now, I shall simply write more before passing judgment. Fortunately, there is a fair bit to discuss.
I am duty-bound to start with Craig Revel-Horwood. A TV name, his Miss Hannigan is front and centre in the show’s marketing, admittedly with a footnote explaining Strictly duties take him elsewhere on Saturdays. His Hannigan, all slurred caustic one-liners and grubby underwear, feels a particularly salubrious treat at a time when Lozza Fox and his toxic ilk are frothing at the mouth about family values. It’s worth remembering that much-missed drag pioneer Paul O’Grady excelled in exactly the same role for many years. Saturday audiences will get Coronation Street’s Jodie Prenger who will do, I’m sure, an excellent job, but I wonder if it will be quite as much naughty fun.
It’s no surprise, given the day job, that Revel-Horwood can dance. His committed hoofing in the number “Easy Street” alongside villainous pair Rooster (Paul French) and Lily (Billy-Kay) is especially on point. Overall, dance is probably more memorable than the music here, so take a bow choreographer Nick Winston. His smart and witty choices form a welcome greatest-hits collection. There is in-yer-face Matilda-esque street dance from the kids early on. Anything Goes sailor tap (a genre I may have invented but certainly want more of) makes an appearance towards the end of Act One and by halfway through Act Two we have had effortless Fred & Ginger ballroom from the ensemble. It all gets a big old 10 from me, except, perhaps, a jarringly clunky attempt to anthropomorphise New York’s iconic cabs. Don’t worry, it is over in an instant.
Plot-wise? Forget it. Even a moment’s rational thought reveals Annie to be utterly bonkers. Our heroine starts in Miss Hannigan’s New York orphanage, promptly escapes and is befriended by the city’s homeless who are so angry about President Herbert Hoover causing the Great Depression that they sing about it. Any lessons about economic parity are conveniently forgotten as Annie is randomly plucked to stay with billionaire Daddy Warbucks (Alex Bourne). One of my favourite lyrics of the evening rhymes ‘Warbucks’ with ‘more bucks’ and, make no mistake, money is all-conquering in Annie’s world. There is, I think, a direct connection to be made between her and Gordon Gecko’s Wall Street ‘Greed is Good’ speech. Worried about Warbucks’ dwindling cash, Little Orphan Annie ends up at the White House encouraging Frederic D. Roosevelt (David Burrows) to stick out his chin and grin and deliver his New Deal policy in time for Christmas. As an aside, this Annie is quite definitely a Christmas show. Put on a reindeer jumper and take your gran. Ho. Ho. Ho.
So, after all that, where do I sit with the whole sentiment versus cynicism conundrum? Predictably… heart won out in the end. The kids in the cast, including a ridiculously confident Harlie Barthram, one of three Annies sharing the role over the tour, are clearly having the time of their lives – and did I mention there was a labradoodle? She’s called Amber and she is a Very Good Girl. Resistance? It proved well and truly futile.
Book by: Thomas Meehan
Music by: Charles Strauss
Lyrics by: Martin Charnin
Directed by: Nikolai Foster
Set & Costumes by: Colin Richmond
Choreography by: Nick Winston
Musical Direction by: Joshua Griffith
Produced by: Michael Harrison & David Ian
Annie plays at The New Wimbledon Theatre until Saturday 11 November before continuing its tour until 25 November. Further information and dates can be found here.