Annie      Mayflower Theatre, Southampton and UK Tour     1 August 2015

When Annie the Musical burst onto the Broadway scene in 1977, the Charles Strouse (score), Thomas Meehan (book) and Martin Charnin (lyrics) creation was a sensation, running for six years, and changing the audition songs for a generation of young performers. “Tomorrow” became an anthem for hope everywhere. This very American musical struck at notions of poverty, class, aspiration, love and hope in a similar thematic way to Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, but brassier in style, and with a real focus on female characters; female orphans replacing male urchins as the narrative spine, the way to pull at heartstrings.

Annie’s vibrant and enthusiastic score is full of hum-hum-hummable tunes and brilliantly complicated characters, especially the women. It offers great escapist fun, some gentle political and social commentary/satire, vaudevillian flourishes, and
storylines and characters which inhabit that space between Heartwarming and Sentimental but, properly played, never stray into the land of Mawkish Drivel.

Central to the show’s success is a trio of women – Annie, Grace Farrell and Miss Hannigan. Annie is the orphan with a keenly developed sense of optimism; Grace is the secretary to unfeasibly wealthy and well-connected Mr Warbucks, and it is she who comes to Annie’s orphanage to select a moppet over whom Warbucks can make a seasonal fuss; and Miss Hannigan runs the orphanage where Grace finds Annie, and Miss Hannigan’s brush with the wealthy life Grace represents sets her mind racing – about ways she can share in Annie’s surprise good fortune.

Without each of these parts played superbly, with the individual contributions of each shining, Annie can’t succeed as it should. And, alas, in Nikolai Foster’s production, which is currently touring the UK, only one of these three key roles is played in a fashion which comes close to what is required.

Happily, it is the role of Annie which is best served here. Madeleine Haynes was a simply terrific red-haired heroine, all wide smiles, big eyes and open, accepting and buoyant optimism. She shows her infectious naughty side too, and just underneath her assured facade is the quivering uncertainty of the alone and parent-less. For a young actress, Haynes gave an excellent and thoughtful performance. Her attachments to Miss Hannigan, then Grace and, finally, Warbucks were all beautifully clear, and the reasons for each very different.

Vocally, Haynes was more than a match for the requirements of Strouse’s score. She handled the plaintive “Maybe” like a seasoned trooper, and belted out “Tomorrow” with a clear, powerful and irrepressibly brassy tone. She gave the song a fresh approach; this was a real performance of the song, not a “here we go again” rendition. Her dancing and ensemble playing was excellent too. Haynes is a proper little star.

The role of Grace Farrell is critical. She provides the one unswerving sense of warmth directed at Annie throughout the story. She sees Annie’s worth and lights the fire which finally burns bright enough for Warbucks to see what he has stumbled across. She provides a counterpoint to Miss Hannigan’s role in Annie’s life. Her pure, clear Soprano voice gives a constant sense of honest warmth while all the other voices revel in their brassiness. Holly Dale Spencer is a superb dancer but she does not have the soaring, glorious soprano necessary for Grace and nor does she demonstrate in her portrayal of Grace the attributes that ought to come with the name. Spencer would be a much better Lily and it is a shame she (and we) was denied that experience. It’s not that she is a totally graceless Grace, but she is a Grace, alas, not full of grace.

The totally graceless approach is cornered in this production by its star, Craig Revel Horwood, who, unfathomably, plays Miss Hannigan. Horwood is a true song and dance man; he can sing, dance, and deliver musical material with pizzazz. He might have been a sensational Rooster, for instance. But Miss Hannigan is a woman, a real woman, who is desperate, trapped, and alone, apart from her alcohol. She is as tragic a figure as any in a Broadway musical, and certainly more tragic than, say, Fagin. So, if you decide to play her like some reincarnation of Elsa Lanchester in the Bride of Frankenstein, her tragic possibilities are limited.

Horwood plays Miss Hannigan like a bad drag Act, or perhaps like a good drag Act, where the purpose of the Act is to be bad. His accent is perfect for a tough man from Brooklyn in the early 1900s but I doubt any woman ever spoke that way. His performance is full of exaggerated, pantomime touches – you can see what a superb Dame he would make in any pantomime anywhere – and an almost vaudevillian sense of the drunken harridan. It’s an intensely excessive performance, utterly devoid of any sense of a true woman, which seeks to be the pulsating rotten heart of the show. Horwood succeeds, completely and without question, in what he sets out to do, presumably with Foster’s concurrence.

The trouble is his performance has nothing to do with Annie.

If this were an adaptation of Annie – Hannie perhaps? – Horwood would be better than good. And, to be fair, the show is clearly billed as starring Horwood as Miss Hannigan and so, perhaps, those who buy tickets are coming not for the show, but for the Horwood-in-drag experience. Those people, who want to laugh at Horwood laughing at himself and what he can get away with, will be well served here. But those who want to experience Annie the Musical get short-changed considerably.

There are so many experienced, talented and skilled female musical theatre performers not working in the UK, it is unconscionable that such a role as Miss Hannigan is played by a man. But if a man is to play the role, then that man should play a real woman, not a one dimensional grotesque caricature. Apart from anything else, playing the character the way Horwood does makes Annie’s devotion to Miss Hannigan unfathomable, and gives Lily and Rooster nowhere to go in the outrageous villains department.

Given that Horwood is such an accomplished director of musical theatre and a waspish critic of the performance work of others, the lapse of judgment here is surprising to say the least. He surely could play Miss Hannigan as a real woman – one wonders why he did not? Foster ought to have made him. As Pooh-Bah says, “A man might try.”

Thankfully, Alex Bourne is on hand to provide gravitas and sophistication as Daddy Warbucks. He does not overdo the stuffiness of the character, rather making him driven and distracted rather than aloof and unaware. This works very well with Haynes’ Annie and Spencer’s cool Grace. He has a great voice for the score and, when he is on stage, the show feels like it is back on track.

There is mostly excellent work from the ensemble, although they are, as usual for touring shows, too few in number. Vocally, they shine. The tunes are sung very well, the harmonies clear and the diction excellent. George Dyer’s musical direction ensures bright and clear singing, although some of the tempi was a little relaxed. The balance between orchestra and cast was excellent, no doubt in part due to the clever orchestrations of David Shrubsole.

Nick Winston’s choreography was brisk and playful, although occasionally individual performers were out of time with their colleagues, fatal where the glory of the movement comes from mass synchronisation. Colin Richmond provides a perfectly pleasant set design and the costumes are appropriate and colourful. The lighting by Ben Cracknell is very good indeed and adds immeasurably to the enjoyment of the production.

If this were Hannie, the Musical, it would get 4 or 5 stars. But it’s not. As it is Annie the Musical, it falls far short of that, and not in any way because of Haynes’ Annie.

Two stars

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.