ANNIE

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _THE ALEXANDRA.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _15th APR.

April 4, 2023

images © Paul Coltas.

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.

‘Clears away the cobwebs and the sorrow…’: As the final creative engagement of his legendary career, it’s impossible to discuss this latest touring production of ‘Annie’ without acknowledging the recent passing of the late, great Paul O’ Grady (pictured above). The beloved entertainer had been sharing the role of the villainous Miss Hannigan in the show with Craig Revel-Horwood, Jodie Prenger and Elaine C Smith at the time of his unexpected passing. In what proved to be a somewhat bittersweet swansong, in many ways it was a beautiful, fitting final bow for the star – offering elements of his caustic, sardonic wit as drag alter-ego Lily Savage, along with his natural affinity to charm and entertain. ‘Annie’ also features prominently, of course, a certain four-legged friend, the likes of which O’Grady was equally well-known and celebrated for being a public champion and supporter of. He will be missed terribly, both on-stage and off, and whilst it was not his performance reviewed, we nonetheless dedicate any positive and kind words said about the production herein to his memory.

Returning along for the ride for this latest tour is one of the earlier stars of the 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-soaked 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.

‘Clears away the cobwebs and the sorrow…’: As the final creative engagement of his legendary career, it’s impossible to discuss this latest touring production of ‘Annie’ without acknowledging the recent passing of the late, great Paul O’ Grady (pictured above). The beloved entertainer had been sharing the role of the villainous Miss Hannigan in the show with Craig Revel-Horwood, Jodie Prenger and Elaine C Smith at the time of his unexpected passing. In what proved to be a somewhat bittersweet swansong, in many ways it was a beautiful, fitting final bow for the star – offering elements of his caustic, sardonic wit as drag alter-ego Lily Savage, along with his natural affinity to charm and entertain. ‘Annie’ also features prominently, of course, a certain four-legged friend, the likes of which O’Grady was equally well-known and celebrated for being a public champion and supporter of. He will be missed terribly, both on-stage and off, and whilst it was not his performance reviewed, we nonetheless dedicate any positive and kind words said about the production herein to his memory.

From old pros (forgive me, Craig) to newer faces, the performance reviewed fell on the shoulders of talented young nine-year-old Zoe Akinyosade, whose powerful, commanding vocals belie her small stature and young age. Suitably adorable and winning as the story’s feisty heroine, if the edges of her performance flitted with some mild hesitancy and nerves, there’s no overstating how very impressive it is to watch such a young talent carry such a huge show. Of course, occasionally being accompanied by one of three Golden Getrievers – ‘Darcy’, ‘Boris’ and ‘Lily’ (the latter, in the performance reviewed) – as Annie’s trusty canine companion, Sandy, certainly doesn’t hurt, either.

“Sure, Horwood can shimmy and soft-shoe up there amongst the best… but there’s something infectiously delicious about the dryer, quieter character moments and choices he takes this time round.”

A performance that felt ever so slightly haphazard in places – a premature close to Act I and a couple of stumbled lines, amongst other curios – was otherwise beautifully served by a great company. The swing and ensemble deserve particular credit for imbibing Winston’s choreography with tons of vim and character. Amelia Adams is a delightful, kindly Grace Farrell, whilst Paul French and Billie-Kay are suitably sleazy and odious as the con artists trying to monopolise on Annie’s newfound attachment to business titan Oliver Warbucks. Speaking of whom, understudy David Burrows – stepping in for principle Warbucks, Alex Bourne – was a real delight as the cantankerous tycoon, bringing a sense of trodden venerability to a character that, in this revival at least, has often skewed slightly young. Burrows channelled the initially brittle Republican, who later mellows into a warmer, paternal figure, with true gusto and heart, giving arguably the best turn of the night.

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. I suggested Burrows gave ‘arguably’ the best turn of the night because, 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’, and whilst this may not quite, across-the-board, beat-for-beat, be the absolute best version of the revival we’ve seen, it’s still nonetheless a completely joyful tonic, 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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