Every avid theatre-goer is familiar with the sensation. It’s one of the reasons we keep going back for more. It’s that soul-tingling feeling when a little-known actor or actress steps on to the stage, opens their mouth to sing, and the heavens fall silent. The silence is one of reverence, because we are witnessing the birth of a star.
So it was last night at Annie at the New Wimbledon Theatre, the tour’s only London venue. All the orphans are perfectly cast. All the actors are outstanding, especially in the tap and jazz-ballet sequences.
Besides Annie, of whom more later, the outstanding surprise is Craig Revel Horwood. As a former ballroom dancer myself, and keen watcher of Strictly Come Dancing, I was expecting the worst and was rather dreading having to write nasty things in this review. He is not at all bad. In fact he is rather amazing. The raw, raspy, wrecked quality of his male tenor as Miss Hannigan was perfect for that evil lying obnoxious drunken sot, a fictional character who has been useful to me all my life, since I first saw this show, many decades ago in the West End. Whenever someone in the real world annoys me, I just think: “I hate Miss Hannigan”, and the annoyance with the real person disappears into the ether of fiction. I think that’s called “transference” and isn’t that what the best musicals are about – allowing us to live the dream ourselves for a moment, safely transgressing the nightmare of the orphanage in this case and Miss Hannigan’s repulsive collaborators in evil, entertaining and instructing us at the same time.
Annie is set in the desperate years after New York’s 1929 Stock Exchange crash and this makes it apt for our present time of austerity, especially the first half. Revel Horwood is in tune, his voice is good and strong, and his dancing is brilliant. For a man to express beauty and fluidity of the body of a drunken, falling-down woman is some achievement and he deserves much credit for this. He is also gifted with the rare ability to dominate a stage by presence alone. Lucky man.
Beside him, Annie and all the orphans appear so tiny, dwarfed by the adults and the cavernously large stages of our provincial theatres. Their challenge is to use their acting, dancing and musical skills to fill those vast spaces. And it is a credit to the nascent talents of these children that they each managed to do this, as individuals and as a group, while conveying the particular characters of their own individual part.
Asha Banks as Duffy has a pure, rich voice which shines out in the song that became an international hit, You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile. With her waist-long, beautiful dark hair and powerful presence, Asha is herself one to watch for the future. Nikoo Saeki as Molly was a strong acting talent, showing feisty courage to shout at Miss Hannigan: “Your days are numbered!” Yay!
Scarlet Churchouse as Tessie displayed skill and integrity in her difficult role of the piteously disappointed and unhappy child. Mia Hope as July was one of the most terrific child dancers I’ve ever seen, excelling in tap, musical-theatre and jazz styles throughout the show. Her crisp, beautiful fluidity was most formidably on display in the first dance number, It’s the Hard Knock Life.
Kate Woodman as orphan Kate stood out as a child who gave it 120 per cent. She threw her little soul into the singing and dancing, landing it in our hearts. What an orphan. I wanted to take her home and adopt her. Scarlett Flannery as the fighter Pepper gives a gutsy opening to the show, shouting “Shut Up!” And for the most part, we did. She also hit a really high note in a brief solo in You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile.
In the title role was Isabella Pappas, who gave an wise yet innocent and intelligent portrayal in a part that demands the highest possible levels of “triple-threat” acting, dancing and singing skills. It takes a special child to carry this off and goodness she did that. From the opening scenes, Annie has to be the leader of the children and Pappas is this leader, naturally and consummately. She conveys a character who is vulnerable but with inner strength, prodigiously clever yet still young and small, determined.
She is problem-solver who will not let go of a dream until that dream, in this case of finding her birth parents, is proven empirically to be unachievable. Here she is red-headed, of course. In her previous starring role in The Nether, in which she showed her skill as an actor and was nominated for an Olivier, she was her natural brunette.
At the New Wimbledon Theatre I was seated in the upper circle, surrounded by the usual sweet-wrapper-rustlers and audience whisperers. As soon as Pappas began her opening number, in her faultless child soprano, the children and adults around me gasped. Heads turned as one to the stage, the audience locked, frozen, in our seats. It was that powerful, awe-inspiring. And I bet she could do it without a microphone. She had such control, and while there was the sense she was withholding a little to stay in keeping with little orphan Annie, we knew she was still giving it everything she had and more, a little girl fully immersed in the endearing character of Annie. Yet there was no mistaking the power and range of that voice.
And of course there was the Annie’s perfectly adorable dog, Sandy, played by a Labradoodle, Amber, fresh from understudying Spot in Shakespeare in Love. Nikolai Foster’s direction gave us a sharper, faster-paced Annie than the one I saw years ago, high in energy but without ducking the necessary pathos. I also loved Colin Richmond’s set and costume design, with its gorgeous use of colour strokes, flashes of red and orange amid the more subtle hues of yellow and brown. Just as the seasons of austerity go round and round, I guess the original Annie might have influenced those who shaped Matilda. Now there are perhaps hints of a theatre world shaped by the success of Matilda in this Annie though of course it has an integrity all its own. The Democrat v Republican jokes in the second act are very funny, in today’s context, and it is a useful history lesson too. There are just a few days left in London. See it if you can.
Review by Ruth Gledhill
Annie, the world’s favourite family musical, comes to Wimbledon for 8 performances only, starring Craig Revel Horwood, the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing judge, as the tyrannical Miss Hannigan! Birds of a Feather star Lesley Joseph will be playing Miss Hannigan on Sat 14 November.
Set in 1930s New York during The Great Depression, brave young Annie is forced to live a life of misery and torment at Miss Hannigan’s orphanage. Determined to find her real parents, her luck changes when she is chosen to spend Christmas at the residence of famous billionaire, Oliver Warbucks. Spiteful Miss Hannigan has other ideas and hatches a plan to spoil Annie’s search…
With its award-winning book and score, this stunning new production includes the unforgettable songs Hard Knock Life, Easy Street, I Don’t Need Anything But You and Tomorrow. Don’t miss Annie – you can bet your bottom dollar that you’ll love it!
Annie the Musical UK Tour Trailer
Annie Musical London
Multi-award-winning comedy writer, actor and author Miranda Hart, makes her West End Theatre debut as Miss Hannigan in the musical Annie at the Piccadilly Theatre which began on 23rd May 2017 with opening night on 5th June 2017. The production, directed by Nikolai Foster, is produced by Michael Harrison and David Ian.
Set in 1930s New York during The Great Depression, brave young Annie is forced to live a life of misery and torment at Miss Hannigan’s orphanage. Her luck changes when she is chosen to spend Christmas at the residence of famous billionaire, Oliver Warbucks. Meanwhile, spiteful Miss Hannigan has other ideas and hatches a plan to spoil Annie’s search for her true family…
Annie has Book by Thomas Meehan adapted from the comic strip Little Orphan Annie, Music by Charles Strouse and Lyrics by Martin Charnin. The West End production has sets and costumes designed by Colin Richmond, choreography by Nick Winston, lighting by Ben Cracknell, sound design by Richard Brooker and orchestration and musical direction by George Dyer.
Piccadilly Theatre, 16 Denman St, Soho, London W1D 7DY
Booking from 23 May 2017 to 6 January 2018
Performances: Then Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7.30pm, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 3.00pm
Miranda Hart will be performing the role of Miss Hannigan until 17 September 2017