On speaking to a friend before attending the Press Night for Annie at Curve Theatre in Leicester, they said something along the lines of “it’s not for me. It’s just too saccharine.” All too often, the word “Annie” conjures up an image of a young curly haired Aileen Quinn from the 1982 movie, raising her fists in a sweet yet feisty way to an unfair 1930s American society. Yes, the story of the orphan adopted by billionaire Daddy Warbucks is the absolute heart of the musical by Thomas Meehan, directed by Curve’s very own Nikolai Foster, but the social commentary in the theatrical musical, that which is largely missing from the 1982 movie adaptation, adds a whole new layer to an America ready for “a new deal” following the stock market crash of 1929, and is perhaps more relevant to our current post-Brexit Britain, than it has been previously. Nikolai Foster has brilliantly weaved together the rags to riches story with the plight of those in Hooverville where “not only don’t we have the chicken, we ain’t got the pot…”. The scene transition where the inhabitants of Hooverville silently invade the orphanage demonstrates early on that Foster plans to further draw out this element of the production.
The set design (Colin Richmond) really emphasises the height of the stage and gives us a child’s perspective on the oppressive orphanage, the excitement of NYC and the grandeur of the Warbucks mansion. Surrounded by jigsaw pieces, it’s only when Daddy Warbucks (Alex Bourne) sings “Something was Missing” while Annie plays with her broken necklace that I realise the huge significance of these, and the connections, and lack thereof, throughout the production come steaming through my thoughts. It’s one of those beautiful moments for an audience member when set design, direction, lighting (Ben Cracknell) and musicality (Joshua Griffiths) all come together in a moment of clarity.
Annie has this way of pulling on your heart strings from the off with sweet little Molly (Suki Hillier) sobbing for her mama in the depressing dormitory. Hillier has wonderful stage presence and the eye can’t help but be drawn to her when she’s on stage. She plays the determined yet sentimental role incredibly well, and certainly sets the tone for the rest of this marvellous production. We get to see Annie’s (Zoe Akinyosade) heart straight away as she comforts Molly. Akinyosade has just the right amount of gumption and sass to make for a lovable Annie whose optimism changes not only her life, and the life of the orphans she lives with, but an entire country! The song for perhaps which Annie is most famous, “Tomorrow”, is sung by Akinyosade with youthful innocence and strength. The reprise in the boardroom in Act 2 replicates the same strength, but the words mean something entirely different coming from those running the country. The harmonies in this song are spine-tinglingly good.
Akinyosade has wonderful chemistry with Daddy Warbucks (Alex Bourne) and Bourne is simply effortless in this role. He is clipped and efficient but the warmth shines through from the very start. He has fantastic emotional range, and the sentiment with which he cares for Annie, despite his own wishes, brings a tear to one’s eye. Even at the point that he is breaking down at the thought of losing Annie, Daddy Warbucks stays strong for her…whilst Grace Farrell (Amelia Adams) is the glue that holds it all together. Adams has a wonderful soprano voice and duets with Bourne bring a smile to one’s face. I particularly love “NYC” because of its vibrance and the fact that it’s a jaunty showtune. The arrangement allowed for some fabulous choreography which just sweeps the audience away to Broadway. From the moment Adams conflicts with Miss Hannigan, you know that she is going to be the perfect antidote to what Annie views as the maternal role.
Craig Revel Horwood being cast as Miss Hannigan is certainly one of the reasons that this is a sell-out run at Curve. As soon as Revel Horwood appears on the stage in a camisole set and satin dressing gown, swigging gin, the applause breaks out. It’s safe to say that the audience love him and are excited at what he will bring to the role. Firstly, he brings a surprisingly good set of pipes – who knew that Revel Horwood could sing with such finesse? I think I did miss the feminine tones in “Little Girls” and “Easy Street”, but nonetheless, the gusto with which Revel Horwood performs in the musical numbers is breath-taking. He also has excellent comic timing, and really knows how to play an audience. Outside of this, he stumbles around the stage with all the grace of celebrity who receives a three on a paddle as he presents us with a new version of the affection-starved, lonely and forgotten Miss Hannigan. I’m not entirely onboard with this portrayal though as it seems a little too pantomime-villain. The real villainy comes in the shape of Rooster (Paul French) and Lily (Billie-Kay) who absolutely embody the shameless and murderous duo who plan to steal money from Daddy Warbucks, and take Annie’s life in the process. I just love their physicality.
The choreography (Nick Winston) is, in the words of Craig Revel Horwood, “fab-u-lous darling”. The energy from the youth ensemble in “Hard Knock Life” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” is infectious and you can just tell that they are loving every minute up on the stage. The ghastly carnivalesque movement in “We’d like to thank you Herbert Hoover” and contrasted incredibly well with the classical grace in the Warbucks mansion, which only goes to highlight further the polarisation that was evident in this society.
Foster has again excelled at bringing an absolute firm family favourite alive on the Curve stage, and I think in a time where there seems to be more unhappiness generally in the world, it is a timely reminder that “the sun will come out tomorrow. Betcha bottom dollar…”
Annie will be playing at Curve theatre until Saturday 4 March. Looking on the website, it is currently sold out, but it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for returns. This is a treat not to miss.