Milton Keynes Theatre
7th August 2023
After the amount of rain we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, having someone say “the sun’ll come out tomorrow” is just what we need to hear, and so the UK tour of ‘Annie’ hits Milton Keynes this week at just the right time. Having launched at Leicester’s Curve in February, the production helmed by Nikolai Foster has been entertaining audiences for several months now, with ‘Strictly’ judge Craig Revel Horwood stepping into the heels of the wretched Miss Hannigan for the majority of the tour dates following the sad passing of Paul O’Grady who was due to share the role with Horwood.
Set in the early 1930s following the US stock market crash of 1929, little orphan Annie (played by Harlie Barthram on Press Night) has spent the last 11 years waiting for her parents to collect her from an orphanage, after being abandoned as a baby with nothing more than a locket and a note promising they’d return one day. She spends her life cleaning and sewing under the wicked watch of Miss Hannigan (Horwood), and dreams of better days. One such day, fate favours Annie and she is given the opportunity to spend Christmas with billionaire tycoon Oliver Warbucks (Alex Bourne), who possesses all he could ever want but yearns for a child. They grow inseparable, but their happiness is jeopardised when Miss Hannigan’s brother Rooster (Paul French) and girlfriend Lily St Regis (Billie-Kay) devise a scheme to falsely claim they are Annie’s parents in order to claim $50,000 in cash.
Like its little leading lady, ‘Annie’ the musical wears its enormous heart on its sleeve for everyone to see, and won’t allow anything to cast a shadow over its pursuit of sunny optimism. The show does tend to garner a bit of criticism in theatre circles, with some calling it saccharine or twee, but for it to still be bringing smiles and joy nearly 50 years after its creation proves that it’s doing something right. The orphan’s unapologetic optimism fills every moment of this heart-warming show, and it’s impossible not to be swept along in her search for family and brighter days. It undoubtedly lacks the darker edge of other child-led musicals like “Oliver” or “Matilda,” but it isn’t trying to be that sort of show; ‘Annie’ is all about finding the light. The score by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin hasn’t dated and still sounds fantastic, consistently delivering tuneful songs full of heart and bounce, and Thomas Meehan’s balances a lot of humour against the emotional weight of Annie’s story. The line between “timeless classic” and “dated museum piece” may get quite blurry once a musical reaches a certain age, but this production full captures the heart of the show. Foster clearly has a lot of love for it, and resists any urge to modernise it, letting the “classic Broadway” charms of a bygone era speak for themselves. The set (Colin Richmond) looks wonderful, as does Ben Cracknell’s lighting design, and both the enthusiastic youngsters and the adult ensemble execute the choreography (by Nick Winston) with an infectious energy and great skill.
Horwood does a fine job as the drunken harpy Miss Hannigan, perhaps a little stilted in the acting stakes but sells the diva in the delivery. There are signs of fatigue creeping into his performance, and he could dial up the fun factor a notch, but having to play far more dates than originally planned can’t be an easy task, and he’s still a good watch. Alex Bourne (Warbucks) and Amelia Adams (Grace Farrell) are particularly strong and have an effortless confidence and quality to their portrayals. Three young actors split the role of Annie, and Harlie Barthram gave a fantastic performance on Press Night. It’s a mammoth role for someone so young to undertake (rarely off the stage, large amounts of dialogue, plus featuring in around half of the songs), and based on two viewed performance of this tour, whichever Annie you get, you’re in for a treat.
If there is one thing that musical theatre is particularly good at, it’s giving us a dose of upbeat optimism when we need it most, and ‘Annie’ does just that. Life isn’t particularly easy at the moment, and ‘Annie’ comes at a time when we could all use a reminder that better days are hopefully just around the corner, even if it’s just a change in this rotten weather.
‘Annie’ plays at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 12th August 2023, before continuing its UK tour.
Performance runtime, 2 hours 25 minutes