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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Piccadilly Theatre 2017

Thomas Meehan's 1977 musical (songs by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin) is a polished Broadway product guaranteed to entertain undemanding family audiences. So even in a lacklustre production such as this one it will please many, who don't realize how much better it could be. 

It is based on the American newspaper comic strip Little Orphan Annie, that ran from 1924 to 2010, charting the usually serious adventures of a never-ageing little girl and her faithful dog. 

Thomas Meehan focuses on the beginnings of the myth, as billionaire Oliver Warbucks decides, on whim, to take a random orphan into his home for Christmas and gets the ever-perky and ever-optimistic Annie, rescuing her from the nasty orphanage manager Miss Hannigan. 

Annie softens Warbucks's heart, and together they foil a plot by Miss Hannigan's brother to extort money from Warbucks by pretending to be Annie's real father, and, almost in passing, inspire President Franklin D Roosevelt's Depression-busting New Deal (an ironic twist since the original comic strip was very right-wing in its politics). 

Along the way there are a troupe of singing and dancing orphan girls, the very broadly comic Miss Hannigan, some enjoy-being-rich numbers and the song every pre-teen girl in the world can sing, Tomorrow. 

This new production has an oddly penny-pinching air about it. Despite large and colourful sets, the stage often feels bare, and musical numbers that obviously want a stageful of dancers are limited to four couples. 

None of director Nikolai Foster's staging is particularly inventive or striking, nor are any of the performances likely to stick in the mind for long. 

This revival is being marketed entirely on the name of Miranda Hart, the television actress-comedian playing Miss Hannigan. Hart would probably be the first to admit she really can't sing, but she does have a good comic sense, and finds all the verbal and visual gags in the character, livening things up significantly whenever she's onstage. 

Alex Bourne has been directed to play Warbucks as a softy from the start, giving Annie too little to do to win him over, but it's an attractive performance and a warm presence to balance the broad comedy of the baddies. 

A trio of girls alternate in the title role, backed by three rotating orphan troupes. (On Broadway in 1977 14-year-old Andrea McCardle did eight performances a week, but child labour laws have evidently changed.) 

I'm afraid that the one I saw, Madeleine Haynes, brings too little to her turn in the rotation, having too little presence or personality to hold the stage. 

Let me put it this way. 'Tomorrow' is one of the truly great Broadway musical anthems and should stop the show at every performance. Ms Haynes is upstaged by the dog. 

And now a bit of pedantry, which I think is important. The visual image of Little Orphan Annie is embedded in the American consciousness, with a never-changing dress and hairdo that make her as recognisable as Mickey Mouse. 

One of the musical's most clever touches is that young Annie doesn't have that look until the final scene, when her transformation generates a moment of theatrical magic and reflects the show's happy ending. (Andrea  McCardle's dress and wig are on display in the Museum of the City of New York.)

Except that it doesn't happen here. Annie ends the show with very much the wrong dress and the wrong wig. 

Can it be that the producers didn't know what Little Orphan Annie is meant to look like, or didn't care, or couldn't get the rights to the image? In any case, the absence of that magical transformation and that iconic visual image is somehow emblematic of the ways this production misses the mark. 

Annie is no masterpiece. But it is a solid piece of entertainment for family audiences, and both it and they deserve more than they get here.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Annie - Piccadilly Theatre 2017