REVIEW: Annie melts hearts and raises smiles in Milton Keynes

Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hannigan
Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hannigan

Alan Wooding reviews Annie at Milton Keynes Theatre

There can't be many people who haven't heard the songs, seen the film or the stage production about little orphan Annie. It's a tale about a little red-haired youngster during the America depression of the 1930s who remains optimistic that one day she will find her real parents.

Annie the Musical opened last night (Monday) at Milton Keynes Theatre to a packed house and will play there until this coming Saturday (6 July). And while our cute heroine and her scruffy dog Sandy steal our hearts, it's the role of Miss Hannigan, the gin-soaked, man-eating orphanage manager, who stars in the show. And it's no wonder that Craig Revel Horwood jumped at the chance to play 'her' once again!

The sometimes controversial Strictly Come Dancing judge is no stranger to the Miss Hannigan role, having enjoyed enormous success in London's West End, although this was his first ever visit to Milton Keynes Theatre as part of the current touring production.

The orphans were in top form on Monday night.

In a recent interview Craig confessed: "I just love this character so much; I'm deeply in love with her. I think she's absolutely fantastic and an extremely misunderstood woman!"

He's certainly absolutely brilliant when playing the proprietor of the New York orphanage during the Great Depression. And he's just as hard and cruel on his little charges as the terrifying Miss Trunchball is on her school pupils in Matilda the Musical.

Craig certainly manages to deliver his lines dripping in vitriol-clad humour which is exactly the way that Carol Burnett (who is now 86!) did in director John Huston's original film.

The youngsters are often fearful of her in her drunken state, but with a collective "We love you Miss Hannigan", it always seemed to do the trick. I really loved Craig's Little Girls number and he really makes the role his own. In fact his dancing (even with a replacement hip) was superb as was his singing voice. Who knew?

Ever since the film first hit the big screen back in 1982, Annie has gone on to become a firm favourite with cinema audiences everywhere while its award-winning score has turned it into one of the best known and most popular musicals of all time. It really is a show for the whole family with plenty of singalong numbers and an uplifting yet simple message, with plenty of laughs together with several sad moments.

Playing orphan Annie on opening night in Milton Keynes was Freya Yates who simply oozes talent and charm. She delivers all the key songs brilliantly and really is one to watch for the future. There's actually a trio of youngsters in the role of Annie – Taziva-Faye Katsande and Ava Smith take it in turns – while there are also three teams of young actors playing the orphans who reside at tyrannical Miss Hannigan's orphanage.

While the show's best known song is probably Tomorrow, for me it's You're Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile and It's A Hard Knock Life which top it as Annie joins forces with the other youngsters with scrubbing brushes and buckets in hand. The show's other key songs are often accompanied by some great dance routines and while Maybe and Something Was Missing pull at the heartstrings, Easy Street, NYC and I Don't Need Anything But You are straight out of the 1930s in their style.

All six orphans are simply brilliant in the acting department although with their American accents and slightly screechy voices, at times it was difficult to understand what was being said or sung, especially as the orchestra tended to overpower them.

On Monday it was 'Team Rockefeller' on duty, comprising Honey-Rose Quinn as Molley, Tilly Stephany as Duffy, Francesca Robibson as Tessie, Aliya Bashir as Pepper, Chance Quaye as July and Tori Ryan as Kate while 'Team Chrysler' and 'Team Empire State' take their turns.

Impressive as the billionaire capitalist Oliver 'Daddy' Warbucks is Alex Bourne who is a dead ringer for BBC One's Apprentice hard man Claude Littner. As an orphan himself, he sends his personal assistant Grace Farrell (Carolyn Maitland) to the New York orphanage to choose an orphan who gets to spend a luxury Christmas with him and the staff at his billionaire mansion.

Needless to say, it's Annie who gets the nod although it's Warbucks' loveable assistant Grace who befriend the little girl and makes her feel right at home – I'm Gonna Like It Here. However on their first meeting Warbucks looks Annie up and down and then exclaims to Grace "orphans are boys!", although the little red-topped youngster ends up melting the hard-nosed businessman's heart.

With Miss Hannigan worried that she's losing her grip on Annie's future, she hatches a plan to scupper the little girls happiness, especially after Warbucks offers a $50,000 reward to find Annie's real parents. That when the cunning Rooster and his gangster's moll-like girlfriend Lily (played by Richard Meek and Jenny Gayner) enter the story.

The spiv-like Rooster knows how to milk a situation as he's in cahoots with his drunken orphanage-owning sister, and together with Lily, his equally trashy other half, they convince Warbucks that Annie is actually their long-lost offspring – and they even have the other half of a necklace to prove it!

Along the way we meet wheelchair-using US President Franklin D Roosevelt (Gary Davis) who Annie inspires to restore America's ailing economy while just in time, the smitten Warbucks learns that Rooster and Lily (aka Mr & Mrs Mudge) are impostors and that opens the door for the billionaire to adopt our little heroine. And that guarantees a happy ending.

Alex Bourne has a fabulous voice and plays the part of Warbucks to perfection, just as Albert Finney (who died earlier this year) did in the original film. As for Carolyn Maitland, she makes a wonderful Grace and possesses an equally memorable voice.

And finally a quick mention of stray dog Sandy (real name Amber), a cute five-year-old Labradoodle, who dashes across the stage throughout the show and is spoilt rotten by the cast. It's amazing what a bag of treats can do.

Annie the Musical is a visual feast with clever lighting, superb choreography and a great set while those memorable numbers stay with you long after you've left the theatre. In fact You're Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile!

* Annie The Musical plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this coming Saturday with tickets available from the Box Office, by calling 0844 871 7652 or by visiting www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes (booking fees apply).