There is a new open-air theatre in Epsom (in between Epsom town and Banstead – nearest station Epsom Downs) with a huge stage and covered seating for an audience of 250, situated in a lavender farm just ten minutes north of M25 Junction 8. The inaugural production is Irving Berlin’s 1946 musical Annie get Your Gun, boasting a cast of fifteen, a superb seven-piece orchestra (MD Debbi Clarke), including banjo and mandolin, and inventive direction and choreography by Simon Hardwick, the advantage here being that dialogue always flows seamlessly into and out of musical numbers, even if, owing to time constraints, a few judicious cuts have been made.
In a programme note Hardwick states that he wanted to put “emotion front and centre to maximise the impact of (the) timeless score… a bygone era where the passion, talent and dedication of the performers take centre stage”.
This he has achieved in very large measure by using a highly talented, versatile, youthful cast who all approach their roles as if they are real, rather than just two-dimensional musical comedy characters.
SuRie, in the title role is superb in every respect. Firstly because she looks the right age, and secondly, because her acting is totally naturalistic, never larger than life like many of her predecessors in this role. Therefore it is very easy to empathise with her, and at times the show is really quite moving. She also has that rare quality, charisma, which means that in the audience’s eyes, she can do nothing wrong! She instinctively knows how to put over Berlin’s songs so that they have the effect intended and she can also dance! I know this may sound trite, but surely here is a “star” in the making, and I look forward to hearing much more of her – as well as being lucky enough to review her performances!
Charlie McCullagh is a cheeky Frank Butler and there is a great rapport between him and Annie from the moment they meet. He is also able to put over a song effectively, is a watchable dancer and plays the role with sincerity. It is a shame that Butler’s Act One song “I’m a Bad Bad Man” is cut.
The remainder of the cast is equally talented, including Puerto Rican Jay Faisca as Chief Sitting Bull, again played ‘straight’, not as it would have been 70 years ago – and all the more effective for that! Peter Stone’s 1999 revision of Herbert and Dorothy Fields’ original script ensures that there are no longer any insensitive references in the show. One of the casualties here is Annie’s “I’m an Indian Too”.
Nina Bell as Winnie Tate, Holly Lawrence and Maris Harris impress with their vitality and boundless energy as do Joe Boyle and Joseph Vella, but in truth, there is not a weak link in the cast, and I include here, Layla Duke, Mayah Balcerak and Caitlin Muggeridge as Annie’s siblings: unlike many children in musicals, their acting is subtle as well as being amusing, and never over the top!
All in all, this is a most enjoyable evening – especially after the interval when the lighting (Adam King) can be seen to its full advantage once darkness has fallen. Impressive also is the sound design (Richard Carter/Max Alexander-Taylor) which for a change ensures that the actors rarely sound as if they are wearing radio mikes: the sound is perfectly natural and always at the right volume!
The great thing about Annie Get Your Gun is that the audience knows most if not all of the songs, and probably the story as well – whether you do or not I can heartily and strongly recommend this production in a most unusual setting.
Review by John Groves
Featuring a glittering score of Irving Berlin’s best-loved songs, ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ proves There’s No Business Like Show Business in all-singing, all-dancing, gun-toting glory!
Director/choreographer Simon Hardwick will bring the story to life in 2023 with a raw and kinetic staging evoking the energy of Buffalo Bill’s original touring celebrations of the Wild West.
Leading the cast are SuRie as Annie Oakley, Charlie McCullagh (‘Bonnie & Clyde’, ‘Dr. Zhivago’, ‘42 Balloons’) as Frank Butler, Chlöe Hart (Catherine of Aragon in the national tour of ‘Six’, ‘Evita’, ‘Kinky Boots’) as Dolly Tate and Elliot Broadfoot, a 2023 graduate from Leeds Conservatoire making his professional debut as Buffalo Bill.
The rest of the company features Nina Bell (‘Dr. Suess’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas’, ‘Matilda’, UK & Ireland Tour), Joe Boyle (‘Top Hat’, ‘Heathers’), Kyerron Dixon-Bassey (‘From Here To Eternity)’, Jay Faisca (‘Henry VI: Days of Rebellion’), Marisa Harris (‘Yeast Nation’, ‘Tony! The Tony Blair Rock Opera’), Holly Lawrence (‘Grease’, Royal Caribbean), AJ Lewis (‘Mandela’, ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’), and Joseph Vella (‘Gypsy’, ‘From Here To Eternity’).
Playing Annie’s younger siblings are Olivia Ainsworth, Mayah Balcerak, Layla Duke, Mahlie Duval, Poppy LeRougetel, and Caitlin Muggeridge.
Director/Choreographer Simon Hardwick (‘My Fair Lady’)
Associate Director and Choreographer Maria Graciano (‘Moulin Rouge’)
Musical Supervisor Matthew Spalding (‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, ‘Singin’ In The Rain’)
Musical Director Debbi Clarke (‘Stranger Sings’, ‘DIVA: Live From Hell!’)
Casting Danielle Tarento
Produced by Lavender Theatre Artistic Director Joe McNeice for Lavender Productions Ltd
It will run at the 250-seat open air theatre Lavender Theatre from 17 July – 5 August.