Annie, review: Congress Theatre, Eastbourne, until August 17

Annie. Picture by Paul Coltas
Annie. Picture by Paul Coltas

A wet Wednesday in Eastbourne. Outside, the town is battered by a soaking onslaught on the eve of Airbourne. But inside the Congress Theatre, there is warmth, exuberant music, humour, dance and colour. Annie the Musical is in town.

One of the happiest shows in the musical canon, Annie has drawn a huge matinee audience, aged six to 76, and the miserable weather is locked firmly outside.

Lesley Joseph as Miss Hannigan. Picture by Paul Coltas

Lesley Joseph as Miss Hannigan. Picture by Paul Coltas

Convincing ‘Noo Yoyk’ accents transport us across the Atlantic, and the top of the Chrysler Building shines somewhere up there at the back of a towering set. It’s 1933, and being an orphan in the Great Depression should be as grim as it gets. But heck, this is musical theatre...

Lesley Joseph totters on, a gin-soaked little figure with gin bottle surgically attached, and she’s a riot – not the overbearing ogress sometimes played, but a quite engaging wreck, poignantly mixing the hilarity with fragility. An interesting and rather beautiful reading, Lesley.

Annie offers directors the choice between a rather grim, depressive realism, or a bolder, more garish and colourful expressionism. For all its schmaltz, Annie holds a mirror to history, especially in the Hooverville scenes, where homelessness lies huddled under every subway arch. And this reviewer recalls a 2001 production in the Congress, just a month after the 9/11 attacks, which had performers and audience choking back tears in the NYC number. “You’re tough, you’re proud...”

But Nikolai Foster, never a director to go through the motions, takes the latter option, with vivid colour and striking imagery. The orphanage is quite spookily lit and the set-pieces blaze bright. Enhanced by Colin Richmond’s enigmatic jigsaw-puzzle set, this production is a visual delight.

The title character herself must carry the show like possibly no other juvenile lead. Today’s Annie, Ava Smith, a slight little figure but with powerful voice and huge heart, looks almost overwhelmed by the tumbling chaos of noise and movement in the opening orphanage scene, but she quickly emerges as funny, feisty and utterly endearing. Melting the heart of Alex Bourne’s gruff Daddy Warbucks, Ava has the show, and the audience, around her little finger.

The girls are cute, gleeful and just a little feral, punching out the songs and dancing with breathtaking precision. And a fabulous senior ensemble dazzles in all the dance numbers, weaving and spinning like a Jack Vettriano painting brought to life (yes, they do include a couple of waiters). They are Les Mis without the anger.

In a uniformly excellent cast, Carolyn Maitland is a sympathetic and graceful Grace, and swing Thomas Audibert steps up assuredly as Bert Healey. The eight-piece band under MD Daniel Griffin keeps a breezy tempo.

Never mind if you’ve seen the show before: familiarity here breeds only a fuzzy warmth. Annie is perennial, and simply a smashing family favourite.

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