Annie is one of those musicals that you’re reasonably assured of what you’re going to get going in.
It’s headed by an adorable kid with ginger ringlets, is peppered with a brace of reliably catchy show tunes, and is based on Harold Gray’s deceptively astute newspaper cartoon strip.
In Nikolai Foster’s new production, however, the saccharine elements are stripped right back, and we are reminded of the bitter cynicism threaded through the narrative: ‘Hooverville’ is a deliciously sour song, and even the breakout hit ‘Tomorrow’, in its first appearance, is a song of defiant anger rather than naïve hope.
It may be Birds of a Feather star Lesley Joseph that gets the punters in, but she would acknowledge that the ‘little girls’ in her orphanage’s care give her a run for her money: it’s a revolving cast of youngsters, but if the rest of the run is populated by actresses as talented as this performance’s ‘Team Roxy’, Annie will have a thrilling run.
Rosanna Beacock, Claudia Carlier, Ashley Goldberg, Connie Burgess, Amelia Coleman and Lissy Mant own the stage in each musical number they appear in – ‘Hard Knock Life’ is punchy and vibrant, a breathless, stomping and supremely confident number (wittily choreographed by Nick Winston) that gives the show a real burst of energy.
Holding her own against such talents is Madeleine Hayes as little orphan Annie, succeeding with the challenging balancing act of precociousness and being a genuinely engaging presence.
The adults are pretty good too: Alex Bourne is an assured Warbucks, while Holly Dale Spencer does great things with what could be a thankless role as Grace. Jonny Fines and Djalenga Scott, in the more showy parts of Rooster and Lily, are immense fun.
It’s always going to be the case that the politics are vaguely troubling – the musical certainly fetishises wealth, and Daddy Warbucks is certainly of the 1%: it’s notable that he’s an unapologetic Republican bewildered by Democratic values. Even more significant is the fact that Annie’s anthem is co-opted by the government as a ‘We’re all in this together’ style movement, although to be fair, that apparently leads to the New Deal, and history records that that worked out quite well.
Many people will have been drawn to the production on the strength of Lesley Joseph’s name on the poster, and she acquits herself as the harridan Hannigan admirably. The script allows her a couple of Birds of a Feather type putdowns – when told that Lily is named after a hotel, her waspish response is an acid drop: ‘What floor?’. However, it’s a show that’s genuinely for the kids – in every respect – and it’s remarkable that there’s not a weak link to be seen.
In the second act, the foot-stamping satire gives way to genuine optimism. It’s a fairytale, certainly, but as Daddy Warbucks advises us: give in, no fight. You can’t watch this show with any level of ironic detachment – it’s best to surrender entirely.
The characters in Annie are battered and bruised by immense social deprivation (it’s impossible not to see modern parallels), but the message remains: optimism is to be valued, treasured and worked for. And can lead to a better tomorrow.
Performed on Tuesday 12 January 2016 at Brighton Theatre Royal.
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