Review: Annie

Miranda Hart is just too nice in the West End's latest musical, says John Nathan


London needs a new feel-good show. But if the notion of children melting adult hearts is enough to harden your arteries, Annie — musical theatre’s cutest child character, alongside Oliver — probably isn’t it.

That said, both child characters inspired two Jewish musical theatre heavyweights, Lionel Bart in the case of Oliver, and Charles Strouse, to write some of the most enduring songs ever composed for the stage. Perhaps when sentimentality turns to schmaltz, it’s easier to swallow.

The surprise here is that there is less fluff and more social realism to this Broadway classic of 1976 than its reputation suggests. Set in Depression-era New York, Little Orphan Annie (the name of the of comic strip on which the show is based) lives with a clutch of other girl foundlings in an orphanage run by the child-hating, gin-swilling, Miss Hannigan, played in Nikolai Foster’s solid production (first seen in 2011), by Miranda Hart, famous for her eponymous TV show and her role in Call the Midwife.

Annie escapes into the big wide world and encounters those made destitute by the Wall Street Crash. Her optimism gives them hope and it has the same effect on none other than President Roosevelt whose job-creating New Deal scheme is inspired by Annie’s rendition of Tomorrow, the show’s most famous song. So there is more to Annie than an opportunity for grown-ups to swoon at a Shirley Temple-style cute-fest.

Things get off to a powerful start when Annie (whose songs on press night were terrifically sung by Ruby Stokes) and her fellow orphans defy the bullying Miss Hannigan with a superbly drilled rendition of the show’s best number Hard Knock Life, their fists flying against the injustices that life has dealt. And first impressions of Hart’s Hannigan are also promising. As with her sitcom, Hart is a hapless but hopeless romantic. Every swig of gin seems intended to anaesthetise her from the realities of life without love. You can’t help but like her, which is where Hart’s strengths become weaknesses, and the fault lines in the production begin to show.

Hannigan is, after all, a character who joins her brother’s money-making plot that does not involve claiming a reward for finding Annie’s parents but actually killing the girl. Less convincing still is the way Thomas Meehan’s book deals with the relationship between Annie and her new carer, a billionaire businessman (Alex Bourne), whose suggestion to Annie that he adopt her, looks awfully like a proposal of marriage.

Still, where the plot seems sure-footed and the psychology of this show’s characters remain intact, the show is still potent. I’m thinking particularly of Hannigan’s reptilian and weasel-like brother Rooster played by Jonny Fines in as fine a display of singing and dancing as you’re likely to see in the West End. But in this production even he can’t quite deliver the feel-good factor that London needs.


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