Nikolai Foster has been absolutely smashing it lately with musical revivals (A Chorus Line and Billy Elliot at the Curve were theatrical highlights of their respective years) and delivers a real treat of a show with his touring production of Annie. The story of the little orphan girl taken in by New York’s billionaire businessman Oliver Warbucks feels practically engrained in British culture, probably thanks to several film remakes and the touring production that has been around since 2015. It was certainly a huge part of my own childhood growing up, and whilst I don’t think the stage version works quite as well as the original film, Foster does a marvellous job at bringing the characters to life and making for a very entertaining evening.
Despite being set in New York, the set doesn’t really go for this, and is instead made up of a large backdrop of puzzle piece shapes, which also poke out from the tabs. Bits of furniture are wheeled on to create each of the settings in Colin Richmond’s design, often with some sort of back piece; a large set of double doors with translucent upper half for Miss Hannigan’s office, or a cleverly ‘W’ sort of shaped flat for Warbucks’ mansion (the design of the latter mirrored in his desk design – a nice touch!). I’m not too clear on what the point of the puzzle pieces are – I suppose a representation of Annie trying to fix the pieces of her life back together – although Lighting Designer Ben Cracknell makes great use of them to create some lovely, flashing effects. With an otherwise fairly bare stage, and not much to denote each setting, Choreographer Nick Winston makes superb use of the ensemble, with a broad mix of really spectacular dances that light up the stage, including a wonderful tap sequence in the NYC number. Winston even manages to make ‘We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover’ into a camp spectacle, and finds all sorts of quirky charm in the children’s dances; ‘It’s the Hard Knock Life’ is particularly delightful in its staging, and the cast of young performers give it bundles of energy and charisma. It’s an incredibly nostalgic watch.
There are some brilliant performances from the cast. Amelia Adams brings the stage to life with her charismatic Grace Farrell, and immediately steals the power from Horwood in their first scene together. Alex Bourne is a very fine Daddy Warbucks, creating a really lovely rapport with Annie (for tonight’s press performance played with the right balance of sweetness and feistiness by Harlie Barthram). Foster’s production ploughs through the story beats, which keeps it nice and pacy but does leave little breathing room for much character development. I’d have liked to have seen a little more contrast in Bourne’s performance before and after bonding with Annie to really emphasise how much she changes him (and moreover how much he needs her as much as she needs him).
Paul French and Billie-Kay are quite sinister as Rooster and Lily. French’s choreography in ‘Easy Street’ is really wonderful at showing off his versatility as a performer as he jumps and spins in the air, and Billy-Kay gets Lily’s physical characterisation spot on, not even seeming remotely scared of Rooster’s punching fist as she instead manically giggles away. There’s a sort of underlying kinkiness and violence to their relationship, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before portrayed quite so explicitly: lots of bottom slapping, and at one moment he holds his hand to her neck as if to choke her. An interesting portrayal, which feels slightly out of place in a family musical, but also totally makes sense in justifying their very real intention to later kill Annie. There are also some standout performances from the ensemble, in particular Lukin Simmons who multi-roles and brings lots of light and joy to the stage as Bert Healy when he begins ‘You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile’.
Craig Revel Horwood is the show’s star casting and leads as the gloriously intoxicated Miss Hannigan. In his first scene, he stumbles around the girls’ bedroom, swigging from a bottle of gin and slurring his sentences (so much so that you can’t always understand what he’s saying.) It’s tricky to tell how much of this is a choice and how much is just him needing to work on his diction, as we do lose quite a lot of his dialogue throughout the show. It’s obviously wonderful seeing him showing off his dance skills in numbers like ‘Easy Street’ and these are definitely the moments where he seems most comfortable and really gets to show off what he’s best at. I was a bit disappointed with his performance in other parts of the show, particularly how he seems to miss a lot of the comedy beats in ‘Little Girls’ and doesn’t engage the audience as much as I think he should with that role.
The production’s pace ensures we’re swiftly taken from song to song, although a little more breathing space would be nice to see time for the character changes to occur. Barthram does an excellent job at carrying the show as Annie, and her belt in particular is outstanding, as she powerfully sings out the final note of ‘Tomorrow’ and makes it look totally effortless. A total star in the making. She’s supported by a fabulous children’s ensemble, especially Chloe Angiama as Molly, who manages to get a few laughs with her excellent comic timing.
Cracknell really knows how to light a musical, with the lighting design effectively working in collaboration with all the other elements to lift the storytelling and set the scene and feeling, as we’re taken to a dark, dusty orphanage and then transported to the bright and airy Warbucks’ mansion, or the sparkling lights of New York City. The detail in Richmond’s set also really pays off, the fridge full of gin bottles in Hannigan’s office a particular highlight the moment it’s revealed. Some great work from Sound Designer Richard Brooker and the rest of the sound team, ensuring all the voices are crystal clear and perfectly balanced with the orchestra, whilst also providing some lovely comedy moments using foley and microphone mishaps in the radio station at the start of Act 2.
It’s a pleasure to finally be able to catch this production after so many years of touring. It’s incredibly nostalgic for the adults in the room, and I’m sure a really magical experience for the many children that will be visiting the theatre for the very first time with this show.
Review by Joseph Dunitz
Set in 1930s New York during The Great Depression, brave young Annie is forced to live a life of misery at Miss Hannigan’s orphanage. Her luck soon changes when she’s 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…
Annie is at New Wimbledon Theatre from Tuesday 7th November, 2023 to Saturday 11th November, 2023.
Annie is at Bristol Hippodrome from Monday 20th November to Saturday 25th November 2023.