ANNIE

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _WOLVERHAMPTON GRAND.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _14th OCT.

October 10, 2023

images © Paul Coltas.

Note: TWE reviewed  ‘Annie’ earlier in its current tour. Given that this is the same touring production, what follows is a revised version of that same review, updated for its visit to the Wolverhampton Grand.

It’s one of those mildly discombobulating moments, realising that Nikolai Foster’s celebrated revival of Annie is staring down the barrel of being, itself – whisper it – twelve years old.

Springing from a bed sewn from the success of the likes of Matilda the Musical – whose inspiration can be seen and felt throughout much of Foster, and designer Colin Richmond’s, admittedly dazzling work here – this Annie is, in many ways, a testament to the power of a strong creative team and vision.

Sure, Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s original music still offers up a handful of memorable earworms – most notably tentpoles ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘Hard knocked life’ (though everyone knows the villainous razzmatazz of ‘Easy Street’ is comfortably the show’s best number). However, the gooey sentimentality that runs through the core of its story, about an adorable orphan being taken in by a irascible billionaire, coupled with some its fair share of less memorable tunes and wonky narrative choices (the prominence of FDR and his political aspirations in Act II still slightly jars), has seen past productions prior to this revival often be exercises in ‘pleasant but unspectacular’.

No such mediocrity here, though. Foster, along with choreographer Nick Winston, have kept their feet firmly on the peddle since 2011, and never let up – hyper-charging each set piece and number into overdrive. Within the multicolour playground of Richmond’s opulent staging – which offers plenty of knowing winks to the story’s original roots in comic strips, of all things – this comfortably remains the best, most kinetic and vibrant that the little orphan’s merry misadventures have ever been.

“It’s a thrill to be back at the orphanage for other reasons, besides…”

It’s a thrill to be back at the orphanage for other reasons, besides. We reviewed this latest touring production of Annie earlier in the year, during its visit to Birmingham, and it felt, to be blunt, a smidgeon lacklustre in places. That it was mere days after the passing of the late, great Paul O’Grady who was, at the time of his passing, sharing the role of the villainous Miss Hanagan at certain venues, meant we gave it a bit of pass. But sound issues, stoppages, some flubbed lines and a slightly nervy leading lady left the impression of a show that was finding its ‘Easy Street’ not quite so smooth a ride.

Returning to the Midlands this week with a visit to Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre, it’s a thrill to say this Annie has more than gotten her groove back.

Along for the ride for this latest tour is one of the earlier stars of Foster’s original revival – Strictly Come Dancing’s Craig Revel Horwood, once again strapping on the heels and necking back the (hopefully artificial) booze as Annie’s caustic, gin-addled orphanage owner, Miss Hannigan. Horwood’s been in and out of the role for just shy of a decade now, and this latest incarnation of his take on the villainess carries some of that brow-beaten weariness with her. Sure, Horwood can shimmy and soft-shoe up there amongst the best – something that gets put to terrific use in the dialled up ‘Easy Street’ and its reprise, for instance – and he’s not shy of belting, either, but there’s something infectiously delicious about the dryer, quieter character moments and less overt choices he takes this time round. His Hannigan here is pathetic, desperate, whiney, deluded – and all the funnier for it.

From old pros (forgive me, Craig) to newer faces, a superlative Sharangi Gnanavarathan delighted in the performance reviewed as the lovable, titular orphan. In what is, remarkably, her professional stage debut, Gnanavarathan commanded the stage with a charismatic, endearing performance and fantastic vocals. Insert ‘bright future awaits’ references here. 

“A superlative Sharangi Gnanavarathan… in what is, remarkably, her professional stage debut.”

Amelia Adams proves another one to watch, as a delightful, kindly Grace Farrell with beautiful, crystalline vocals, she feels plucked straight from the golden era of the studio musical. Paul French and Billie-Kay, meanwhile, are suitably sleazy and odious as the con artists trying to monopolise on Annie’s newfound attachment to business titan Oliver Warbucks, with French in particular taking his ‘Rooster’ down some gloriously unhinged deviations and creative cul-de-sacs that were new and hilariously bonkers, even after having already seen the tour earlier in its run. There’s clearly a lot of fun being had between French and Revel Horwood in particular, as on-stage siblings.

Speaking of fun, stage vetern Alex Bourne is a notably buoyant and even occasionally peppy Oliver Warbucks, a choice that works beautifully with this vibrant, technicolor take on the tale.

But of course, there’s no appraising the show without mentioning the kids.

Oh, the kids. Right from the off, with a foot-stomping, fist-clenching, gleefully bravura take on the anthemic ‘Hard Knocked Life’, they brilliantly, bombastically let you know this is an Annie that means business… and isn’t afraid to sock you one in the smacker if you underestimate it. Revel Horwood, French, Adams and the company all put in wonderful turns but, in truth, it’s the talented youngsters stomping their way through some of the best numbers, that really run away with the whole thing.

There’s so much theatrical goodness coursing through the fibre of this incarnation of Annie, that it’s difficult to see it being considered now anything less than definitive. It is so animated, so slickly choreographed and energetically delivered, so colourful and infused with stagey showmanship, that the possibility of slipping back to the simpler, dryer offerings of yesteryear is simply inconceivable.

Over a decade on, Annie continues to prove itself more than ready for ‘tomorrow’. After a slightly disappointing state of play earlier in the run, everyone’s favourite redhead is back on jubilant, irrepressible form, with a seminal revival that remains a completely joyful tonic, and one that will leave you feeling more than fully dressed, with the grandest of smiles.

Foster’s kinetic, colourful, spirited revival further cements itself as the definitive, must-see version of an old favourite. Revel Horwood channels new, gin-addled fun as Hannigan, whilst the kids, company and canines alike all delight.

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