Annie (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

Annie (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, January 16th)

Want the perfect way to dispel the winter blues? The sun will come out every day the terrific new production of Annie plays in Brighton and continues its national tour.

The hit musical version of the tale of comic strip favourite Little Orphan Annie has delighted audiences since originally being staged in 1976. Director Nikolai Foster’s new version, originally seen at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, is an absolute joy boasting an energetic cast and the highest of production values.

It’s a show that would surely have been a crowd-pleaser over the Christmas period with its seasonal setting, its upbeat story of the orphan invited to spend Christmas with a billionaire and a feelgood factor bound to thaw even the iciest heart.

This charming production takes all the ingredients of Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan’s musical – the feisty young orphan girls, the villainous orphanage matron, a cute dog, the big-hearted businessman, a singing US President and some showstopping songs – and bakes up a masterpiece.

There will be some who are understandably disappointed that Craig Revel Horwood, who played the foul Miss Hannigan on the first part of this tour, has hung up his gin bottles to work on his own shows and to judge the Strictly Come Dancing Live Tour. However, it is hard to believe that those people will not be won over completely by Lesley Joseph’s glorious performance as the putrid matron who despises the girls in her charge. She first played the role in the West End in 1998 and has now made the character even more ghastly and unpleasant.  It’s an acting triumph – and she also does extremely well in her song Little Girls (a venomous and bitter soliloquy about her responsibilities) and the song and dance number Easy Street, alongside the gold-digging Rooster (Jonny Fines) and Lily (Djalenga Scott).

But there is so much to like: Madeleine Haynes as the ever-optimistic Annie, confident and strong without ever being brash; the always excellent Alex Bourne as a warm and likeable Daddy Warbucks, who wants to adopt Annie but is willing to sacrifice his happiness when he discovers that she is desperate to find her own parents; gorgeous Holly Dale Spencer giving great spirit to the role of Warbucks’ faithful secretary Grace, who takes a shine to Annie from their first meeting; the assured “Team Roxy” who play Annie’s six orphanage room-mates with assurance; and the powerful supporting company who switch roles effortlessly to play a collection of down and outs, radio show presenters, Warbucks’ staff, government officials, and a host of other inhabitants of NYC.

Nick Winston’s choreography puts the cast through their paces, from soft show shuffles to high-powered Hollywood style routines, while George Dyer’s lively musical direction and Ben Cracknell’s beautiful lighting design are among the other highlights. Colin Richmond’s jigsaw set is striking though puzzling, as it never quite captures the atmosphere of the various locations. 

Annie is always going to be a show that teeters dangerously close to unbearable sugary sweetness, but the grit of the story and the determination of the characters ensures saccharine levels here are not pushed higher than necessary.

Indeed, we are reminded throughout that this is a show set in the American Depression, where times are tough, society is often unfair, and the political leaders have little clue of what is happening in the real world. Yet the sheer energy and optimism undergirds everything, not only in the bright and breezy characters, but also in the punchy performances of such musical numbers as Tomorrow, Maybe, N.Y.C. and A New Deal for Christmas.

It is tremendous to see yet another touring musical putting every effort into ensuring the production isn’t second best to demanding West End standards, with a hard-working cast that seem to be enjoying every minute. Tomorrow may only be a day away – but make sure you see this magnificent Annie before it’s too late!

David Guest