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BWW Review: ANNIE, Piccadilly Theatre

Has there ever been a time when we're more in need of irrepressible optimism? The orphan who convinces everyone around her that "the sun will come out tomorrow" has certainly hit the West End at an opportune moment, and there's plenty of enjoyment to be had from a show that is, nevertheless, far more throwback than vital piece for 2017.

Based on Harold Gray's comic strip, Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan's musical premiered on Broadway 40 years ago. Set in 1933, its title character dreams of her parents coming to rescue her from a grim New York orphanage, but instead winds up in the home of billionaire Daddy Warbucks - and, in the most preposterous development, subsequently inspires FDR's New Deal with her winsome positivity.

One fears it would take more than a cute, redheaded 11-year-old to locate, let alone melt, the heart of the White House's current occupant - and it's tough to warm to either American President or filthy rich tycoon in the current climate. Other story aspects may also read differently in a more cynical world (the blossoming friendship between a preteen girl and older man) and more enlightened times (when Annie imagines her parents, she sings "Betcha he reads/Betcha she sews").

But Nikolai Foster's assured revival, which previously toured the UK, is big on robust, old-fashioned charm. He and choreographer Nick Winston steer the orphans away from tooth-achingly saccharine, with a scrappy ruffian-esque "It's the Hard Knock Life" that pleasantly recalls (the unavoidably superior) Matilda, and Winston nicely differentiates the locales: from the balletic grace of Warbucks's staff to the mock-vaudevillian occupants of a Depression-era shanty town.

Colin Richmond's jigsaw puzzle set also nods to Matilda, but lacks its inventiveness - and a perennially wobbly door distracts. With several competing versions of New York elsewhere in theatreland - from 42nd Street's assured vision to On the Town's pulsating energy ­­­- the production feels a tad underwhelming in its evocation of the Big Apple.

Box office draw Miranda Hart is similarly muted in her West End debut, offering a gently gin-soaked Miss Hannigan who's more sad than bad. She has touching moments of vulnerability, ineptly flirting with any male who crosses her path and sinking to the floor in despair at the news that her nemesis has hit the jackpot, but this is a character who must also supply darkness in order to offset the story's sugary tendencies.

Hart is simply too likeable, and never really convinces as the feared orphanage boss who would starve, berate and plot to abduct children. She makes a somewhat dubious attempt at the American accent, singing and dancing - finding a character take on the latter, at least, with some brilliantly awkward shimmies - and can certainly be trusted to deliver both physical comedy and punch lines, even if she's rather shown up elsewhere by the precociously talented younger cast.

They're the real stars, from the close-knit gang of orphans to the ever-confident Annie. Last night, Madeleine Haynes took the lead role with authority, supplying a clear voice, nifty moves, unshakable poise (firmly ignoring Labradoodle Amber's fit of leg-scratching during "Tomorrow") and megawatt smile.

The supporting adults also impress, from Alex Bourne's heartfelt Warbucks - visibly changed by having Annie in his life, and conflicted at the thought of losing her to her real parents - to Holly Dale Spencer's sweet-voiced secretary, Jonny Fines and Djalenga Scott's shifty crooks, and Bobby Delaney's beleaguered radio host.

It's not the most nuanced exploration of the economic divide, nor the most gripping tale in the West End, but its preaching of compassion, generosity, hope and can-do spirit should certainly be applauded - and will make it a safe bet for family theatre trips. Plus, as recent events like Ariana Grande's concert have proved, it's in the next generation, particularly in young girls embracing their power, that positive change can come.

Annie at Piccadilly Theatre until 6 January, 2018

Read our interview with Alex Bourne

Photo credit: Paul Coltas

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