This current tour of Annie has taken its own share of hard knocks, after the sudden death of Paul O’Grady earlier this year. O’Grady was sharing the role of Miss Hannigan with Craig Revel-Horwood, who continues for the rest of the tour, with Jodie Prenger covering Saturday performances while he is judging BBC’s Strictly.
There is a grit about this production that feels ingrained more than the dirt on the faces and makes the joy feel hard won and more uplifting.
The show opens on the orphanage dormitory, where Colin Richmond’s towering set design, with its giant door and floating jigsaw pieces creating an element of fantasy while reminding us of the vulnerability of the kids and the toys they don’t have. These youngsters might talk tough, but when not scrubbing the floors they like nothing more than a ride around in the laundry basket.
It’s not long before we find out what or who is behind the door marked Private. Revel-Horwood’s Miss Hannigan bursts into the room with the perfect mix of villain and comic. Her hair is unkempt, her mascara smudged, clothes ill-fitting and her gin swigging habit has her struggling to stay upright. “It’s medicine!” she tells the girls. To which one quickly replies: “Well, you must be very sick”. Revel-Horwood plays Hannigan with a twinkle in his eye – more frustrated drunk than evil child-catcher. His scenes are full of fun and physical comedy to entertain the adults and kids in the audience alike. And while his name is clearly the big star draw, he doesn’t break character or turn his drag act into a pantomime – which we’ve seen at the Opera House he can do very well.
The original Annie musical opened on Broadway in 1977 and has since seen two film versions, the second with updated remixes of the music. This production sticks with Charles Strouse’s original music and Martin Charnin’s lyrics, and most of the numbers – Tomorrow, You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile, I Don’t Need Anything But You – are instantly recognisable to young and old alike.
Aside from the well-known tunes, at its heart the musical tells a strong story of one little girl’s emotional journey to find her place in the world. It is set in New York during the 1930’s depression, where life is far from a fairy-tale. It is a tough world and there are mean people, like Rooster and Lily. Lukin Simmonds and Billie-Kay bring the scheming couple to life with a sleazy, often chilling edge. Unlike the shambolic Hannigan who never has a smile far from her face we believe these two might just do anything to make a quick buck on Easy Street.
But feisty Annie isn’t afraid, epitomising President Roosevelt’s well-known adage, ‘We’ve nothing to fear except fear itself.’ Thankfully there are more good people and, in her search, Annie finds them, bringing along her friends and a stray dog – an adorable, placid Labradoodle – to share her fortune.
There are three young actors playing the role of Annie during the run. We saw Sharangi Gnanavarathan, who wins the audience’s hearts just as her character wins the heart of billionaire Daddy Warbucks (Alex Bourne).
In a nutshell, this uplifting show has cute kids with attitude, an adorable dog, a live band, and Strictly Royalty – it’s pure entertainment.