Annie is at the Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh (Mon 30th Sept to Sat 5th Oct), and this 2019 tour of the musical with Lesley Joseph and Alex Bourne in the leading roles of Miss Hannigan and Daddy Warbucks, plus a selection of Annies in our title role (Ava Smith for this evening’s performance) is everything that Annie fans will expect on-stage.
Although many people will know the story of Annie from two films (1982 and 2014), plus a television movie and of course the musical (The original Broadway production opened in 1977), it is from newspaper comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” that I know this story best. The comic strip started in 1924 and took its title name from the 1885 poem "Little Orphant Annie" (correct spelling here) by James Whitcomb Riley.
The world of Annie is now nearly 100 years away from us and this show production is set in 1933 and the early days of the Roosevelt Presidency and an America reeling from the 1929 stock market’s crash, mass poverty, unemployment and homelessness. This is a country teetering on the brink of complete economic and social collapse, and that period of upheaval is captured well in both songs and a very good stage and costume design. This attention to detail gives us a real world for Annie and her fellow “orphans” to live in and makes a sharp contrast with the world of the super-rich Oliver (Daddy) Warbucks that Annie enters into when she is chosen at random from the orphanage to spend Christmas with him .
Annie is a bit of an odd production for me, one with definitely two faces (not just the poor and the rich ones). At one level it is a story of the ever optimistic and looking for that better day “tomorrow” Annie that so many people seem to love and enjoy. Depending upon your personal disposition and view of life though you might find the never ending spoonfuls of added sugar to this already sugar coated story getting a little too sweet and pray for Annie’s dog to at least give her a gentle bite on her hand.
On the other level though, Annie is as finely a put together stage musical as you are going to find anywhere, and there are some very good “show songs” here. This production is also a wonderful and tightly choreographed homage to all of those classic Hollywood musicals of the 1930s.
For this production, Lesley Joseph gives us an interesting take on Miss Hannigan, a woman who hates the children around her and in a very Dickensian story line keeps them in poverty and rags whilst at the same time using them as child labour in her garment sewing factory. You will either love or hate this Miss Hannigan, but either way Lesley Joseph has more than enough drama and comedy drama experience to make this role her own and very unique. For myself, I like this Miss Hannigan being almost a cartoon character at times. This is after all the world that Annie comes from.
In total contrast to Miss Hannigan we have Alex Bourne as the Daddy Warbucks that Annie needs and of course Annie is the person that he really needs in his life too. The interaction between Annie (Ava Smith) and Daddy Warbucks, and the message that you can have all the money in the world but still have nothing that really matters is perhaps the underlying appeal that has made this musical such a hit over the years and kept the Annie story running for nearly 100 years.
With any musical involving young people and children, particularly one with orphans in it, they are the ones who invariably will steal much of the show, and here Ava Smith is no exception to this rule as she sings, dances and acts her way into not only Daddy Warbuck’s heart but the audience’s too.
Annie has a real story to it, and that allows for some good parts for secondary characters and there are some fine song and dance routines here that Carolyn Maitland as Daddy’s PA, Grace Farrell, performs in classic period dance style (and costume). Really nice character performances too from Richard Meek (Rooster), Jenny Gayner (Lily) and Gary Davis as President FDR. Not forgetting either Suzannah Van den Berg as radio announcer “Bert Healy”. Suzannah has also previously given her talents to the role of Miss Hannigan.
There is a fine performance too from Sandy as Annie’s foundling stray dog Amber. Playing the part of a dog seems to come so naturally to Sandy.
If this production has perhaps one little downfall, it is that there are many references and little in-jokes to prominent figures of the time, and if you do not have a reasonable grasp of American society in the 1930s then these may simply be lost, particularly with younger members of the audience.
Review by Tom King