Annie (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

We all know what happened to her when she grew up – she got a gun and went off with Wild Buffalo Bill Hiccups. But the story of Annie Oakley’s bittersweet early life is told in the classic musical Annie, now touring the UK.

Seeing the show brought back happy memories for me as I once played the part of Annie in a production where Gillian Offaldrop was supposed to be doing it, but she fell off her roller skates only hours before first night and broke both her legs, so I was asked to step in as I had learned all the words. Critics were unkind because I was aged 45 but I think it was very brave of our amateur company to press on with it. There was only one embarrassing moment, when I mixed up the words of Tomorrow and Tomorrow Belongs to Me from Cabaret but our Sandy the dog chose that very moment to leave a deposit on the stage, which distracted the audience’s attention.

I didn’t properly realise that Annie Oakley had been Little Orphan Annie as a child – no wonder she ran off to join a Wild West Show! I found my eyes watering as it was revealed that she was dumped on the orphanage steps when she was a baby and it was good to see that her feisty nature and regular attempts to escape the cruel tyranny of the home led her to great success and made her proud to announce in the future that there’s no business like show business.

We learned how Annie was to make a living wandering the New York streets selling Hoovers to people who were depressed and how her chance meeting with a nice blonde (played by Holly Dale Spencer) led to her being adopted by Donald Pleasence.

This new version of the musical is directed by Nikolai Foster, who used to be a chess grand master living in Leicester. He certainly knows how to stage great musicals, and that was what he did here in a show that mentioned Christmas so often it should have been the theatre’s Christmas show.

At the start of a New Year it was quite uplifting to see how Annie managed to persuade everyone that they should be good Americans, buck their ideas up and also appear on Deal Or No Deal.

I was really impressed by Lesley Joseph (who I think used to present Blue Peter before going on to play Dorian Gray on TV) as Miss Hannigan, the gin-swilling matron of the orphanage. She was so good and so vile in the part that I wanted to throw rotten fruit at her, although I didn’t after a previous experience at the Royal Opera House.

Madeleine Haynes played the confident Annie, and I liked the little nods to who should would grow up to be, such as firing a potato gun at Miss Hannigan’s gin bottles, and I assume the radio appearance she made was a subtle reminder that she went off to star in a RODEO.

Alex Bourne was excellent as Donald Pleasence, though this was a more genial side to the famous actor to the one we have seen in films such as Hallowe’en and You Only Live Twice.

I really enjoyed Nick Winston’s choreography, especially the cinema scene. Had Leonard Bernstein seen it he would never have had to write On The Town just over 10 years later. The dancing sailors in their bell bottoms got me very excited and I had to calm myself down by sipping a chilled apple and raspberry J20.

I discovered that I was still able to get into my Annie costume so duly went along in my red dress and curly ginger wig. Thus it was particularly disappointing to see that when Annie had her makeover she did not reappear on stage with curly hair like her comic strip counterpart. This made me feel a bit ridiculous, though several audience members were kind enough to come up to me and remark that at least *I* had the correct hair even if the Annie on stage didn’t.

All in all, I would say this was a very good and informative production – but it just wasn’t curly-haired enough.  

Pam Purde

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