As even a casual viewer of Strictly Come Dancing cannot fail to have noticed, Craig Revel Horwood delights in playing women. His Morticia Addams on the show was particularly striking. Here he is back once again as Miss Hannigan, a part he has played many times over the years but which he seems to relish. He chews his way through vowels in his drawling New York accent, ringing comedy out of all sorts of moments and being thoroughly unpleasant in the most delightful way.
The story of little orphan Annie as told in the musical is probably familiar. There haven’t been many recent years without a production on tour or in the West End since the musical’s debut in 1977, as well as several film/TV adaptations. Essentially Annie lives in an orphanage run by Miss Hannigan, who drinks and exploits her young charges, until Annie is invited to spend two weeks at billionaire Oliver Warbucks’ home, where she finds new friends and begins the search for her parents. Although often thought of as softly sentimental, the story does in fact take dark turns, not least because (spoiler alert) Annie is never reunited with her parents.
The first thing to note about this production is that it looks great. The set, comprising aerial views of what I assume is New York City combined with giant jigsaw pieces, is put before us without a curtain and stays put throughout. But cleverly detailed key elements of scenery are wheeled on or flown in and seem to convert the whole stage into the place they are indicating. This also makes for some remarkably slick scene transitions.
The ensemble are outstanding. In Hooverville and N.Y.C. they show fantastic energy and precision. On top of that they all take on numerous roles from down-and-outs to Broadway show dancers to Warbucks’ household staff. It’s great to see such use of the chorus.
Our Annie on press night was Poppy Cunningham, who was suitably feisty but also charming. Needless to say she had the necessary singing chops to deal with the score, but she also held her own admirably when performing with the adult members of the company. And, not least, she avoided being upstaged – just – by either Darcy, Boris or Lily, who between them play the dog Sandy.
Alex Bourne as Oliver ‘Daddy’ Warbucks has a commanding presence and a rich speaking and singing voice. He appears every inch the powerful billionaire but also a credible father figure for Annie.
The stand-out number is, I think, Easy Street. And the stand-out performer in it is Paul French as Miss Hannigan’s ne’er do well brother Rooster. With an oily charm and snake-like movements it’s hard to take your eyes off him.
I suppose the other thing to say is that, like Annie herself, it’s easy to underestimate Annie the musical. It’s packed with more great tunes than you realise (no, it’s not just ‘Tomorrow’ and nothing else), the story has genuine emotion and resonance and it’s so much more than just a show for children.
Annie is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 6 May 2023 and then continues on tour.