Book by Thomas Meehan with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin
Michael Harrison, David Ian, Tulchin / Bartner, Michael Watt, Neil Laidlaw / Ramin Sabi
Opera House, Manchester
Little Orphan Annie, the source material upon which the musical Annie is based, was a newspaper strip rather than a comic and never really made much impact upon the UK. So there are few purists who might take offence that the musical is an ‘origin’ story setting the background for the character and with few of the iconic features.
During the American depression of the 1930s, it is a hard knock life for Annie (Faye Katsande). Although trapped in an orphanage under the less than tender care of the shambolic Miss Hannigan (Anita Dobson), Annie refuses to accept she is an orphan believing one day she will be re-united with her parents. The chance to spend Christmas with billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Alex Bourne) offers both of them a surprise chance at happiness but leaves Annie vulnerable to fraudsters.
Cartoonist Harold Gray did not hesitate to use his comic strip to communicate his political views. Director Nikolai Foster shares this approach. As the audience enters the theatre, speeches from President Roosevelt are broadcast and there is a degree of social awareness with the lower class characters maintaining a nasal Yank accent compared to the cut-glass tones of the upper class. For a musical directed at a young audience, there are some surprisingly sombre sequences, with scenes in the orphanage and a shanty town inhabited by the homeless, and the show begins with a child crying out in alarm.
Foster walks a fine line between shamelessly manipulative and daringly different. No opportunity is lost to exploit the ‘aww’ factor with the labradoodle Amber trotting across the stage at regular intervals. Yet there is a bracing atmosphere of cynicism under the sentiment. The orphans, played by a scene-stealing ensemble of six youngsters, far from being vulnerable to exploitation, are terrifying feral creatures. The audience listening to a radio show is unaware the sophisticated singers The Boylan Sisters are performing under the influence and one is heavily pregnant.
Choreographer Nick Winston devises some classy routines—especially a thunderous tap-dancing sequence. Social awareness influences some of the routines with a threatening edge of defiance underlying the punching fists and kicking feet in the dances featuring the orphans and homeless. The song lyrics may speak optimistically of a better tomorrow but the cast make clear the characters are angry and know it will not arrive without them having to struggle.
The set by Colin Richmond is, well, something of a puzzle. While the orphanage and shanty town have an authentic feel, it is hard to work out the purpose of the border and background made up of pieces of a jigsaw.
Anita Dobson spots the truth of Miss Hannigan that, far from being the villain of the piece, she is actually the underdog with the orphans she is supposed to be exploiting running rings around her. With a Joker-like rictus smile plastered on her face, Dobson gives a terrific, if grotesque, comic interpretation of a character so far out of her depth she is kept afloat only by the easy availability of gin. Faye Katsande is an excellent spunky heroine but the show is dominated by the brash and unstoppable band of orphans.
It might be a hard knock life for Annie but this is a damn fine show.