Annie – Grand Opera House, Belfast – Review
by Cathy Brown
Tue 29 October 2019 – Sat 02 November 2019
Little Orphan Annie has been around for a while. She first appeared as a comic strip in 1924 before being adapted for radio in 1930 and there is not one but five film adaptations. The Broadway musical first opened in 1977, however Annie has probably been best immortalised in the 1982 movie starring Aileen Queen as the titular, lovable orphan.
Going to see Annie The Musical on its UK tour, it probably helps if you are a fan of any of the movie adaptations. The story of the cute little red-haired orphan – armed with pluck and some good show tunes – who wins over not only the billionaire Oliver Warbucks, but also gives Roosevelt the idea for the New Deal, is so saccharine sweet that it might otherwise set your teeth on edge.
This production works well by subtly injecting a little more grit into the well-known proceedings. This Annie embraces the social and political slant that was intrinsic to the story’s original beginnings and recognises the grim reality of life in America during the Great Depression. Much of it is still light entertainment, but from the radio news broadcasting in the auditorium as the audience take their seats, to the inclusion of the number Hooverville depicting the homeless of New York, this is a story rooted in the central dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots.
It can be hard for performers to take on roles made iconic by other actors, and most of the cast here sensibly give their own interpretations. Alex Bourne is a willing and warm-hearted Warbucks, who comes across as busy, rather than boorish. Annie steals his heart as quickly as he decides in which room in his mansion he should hang the Mona Lisa.
Annie is a slight void of a character, someone to whom things happen rather than an active heroine. Mia Lahka holds her own with a clear voice and sweet demeanour, but a bit more attitude would have added to the mix. She comes complete with her incredibly cute and well-trained dog Sandy, who seems to have trotted straight off the set of the 1982 film.
Lesley Joseph as the grotesque, drunken Miss Hannigan is the most anticipated performance of the night and she does a decent job throwing out insults and jibes to her orphan charges. Yet, her depiction feels a little lacklustre, needing to be either more mean or more funny to be truly convincing. This is a Miss Hannigan as support part rather than star billing.
There is great support from a talented and spirited cast; Carolyn Maitland shines in the straightest role as Warbucks’ secretary Grace Farrell, while Richard Meek and Jenny Gaynor are deliciously sleazy as the shows villains Rooster and Lily, brightening up the stage with every scene they are in. The orphans are a sassy, sure-voiced bunch and the choreography by Nick Winston makes the most of the limited stage space.
Nikolai Foster ably directs a lively and well-paced show, where the lesser known songs sit comfortably beside the show-stoppers of Little Girls, Never Fully Dressed and Easy Street, which is so good, they perform it twice. As the show ends with a Christmas-themed reprise of Tomorrow, it would take the hardest of hearts not to be completely charmed by the sheer bright-eyed optimism and joyous exuberance of this slick production.
Today’s political situation may not be as dire as that of the Great Depression, but feel-good musical theatre of this quality is as welcome now as it was in the 1930s and Annie is a great night’s entertainment for audiences of all ages.