Should Miss Hannigan be a man again?

It all started with a tweet. Mummy was busy minding her own business (or, more cynically, trying to increase her Twitter following) and innocently tweeted to say how excited the munchkins were about Craig Revel Horwood playing Miss Hannigan in Annie. Mummy received a tweet back from another theatre blogger (still not converted to a follower, Mummy notes wistfully) which read as follows: “Because, obviously, there are no female actors good enough to play Miss Hannigan… [eye roll emoji] ” Mummy briefly deliberated engaging in a Twitter spat (in a further attempt at raising her pathetic social media profile) but decided instead to have a coffee and write herself a little essay about gender blind casting. For the words of Mummy’s new twitter acquaintance resonated with Mummy. And thus here follows Mummy’s first serious blog:

The obvious response is yes of course there are plenty of female actors good enough to play Miss Hannigan. In fact, the role of Miss Hannigan is being played by Lesley Joseph and Anita Dobson on other legs of the tour. It has also previously been played by Miranda Hart, Meera Syal and Jodie Prenger.

These actors may not have gender in common with Craig Revel Horwood. Nor are they all equal in terms of musical theatre pedigree. What they do share is celebrity. And that is undoubtedly a factor in the casting decision here. Stunt casting is common, particularly on tours, where big names are needed to pull in punters. Yes, Annie is a well known musical which is likely to sell some seats without the celebrity casting. But it is also a musical with a predominantly child cast. And that alone is likely to put off some theatre-goers without the draw of a celebrity in a supporting role.

It would be easy enough at this stage to re-frame the question as being about whether it is appropriate to cast celebrities over trained musical theatre professionals. But that’s a debate for a different time. And as it happens, Craig Revel Horwood ticks both boxes anyway. So back to the question at hand. There are undoubtedly countless other female actors, famous or otherwise, who could sing the socks off what I have always considered to be one of the best female roles in musical theatre. So if I think that, why do I not have a problem with the role being played by a man? Or do I?

I’ll admit to feeling conflicted on this point when the casting was first announced. I could happily dream cast this role with various West End legends. At the same time, I have a soft spot for Craig and would like to see him on stage. At this point, it may be questioned whether there was a more suitable male role for him in Annie. Daddy Warbucks or Rooster perhaps. But, then again, this presupposes that a female role is unsuitable. Why shouldn’t he play Hannigan?

Theatre obviously has a deep history of cross-dressing and has often been a safe-haven for minorities, particularly those from the LGBTQ community. But of course tradition is not an excuse for perpetuating stereotypes. It is too easy to put a man in a dress and play it for laughs. This may be just(!) on the right side of acceptable in panto but Miss Hannigan is not a pantomime villain. And one strong worry I have about Craig Revel Horwood playing Hannigan is that he could well have been cast precisely because of his reputation as the wicked queen of Strictly.

Assuming that he does not play it this way, I struggle to see why – in theory – his gender should prevent him playing a role. Acting involves pretending to be something or someone that you are not. And I find it difficult to determine where we should draw the line between pretence and reality. To what extent should an actor’s personal characteristics and experiences either qualify them for a role or prevent them from taking it?

This is not a new debate. Nor is it confined to the question of gender. Actors are increasingly being criticised for taking roles that they have “no right” to play. Cis actors playing trans characters. Straight actors playing gay characters. Able-bodied actors playing disabled characters. Where should the line be drawn? You could argue that – in theory – there should be no line at all. Particularly in musical theatre which is hardly the height of realism. An audience is quite capable of suspending its disbelief so any actor should be entitled to play any role. If they can play it convincingly and entertainingly it should not matter that they are not playing a carbon copy of themselves. In fact, too often we hear the criticism levelled at actors that they are playing themselves, rather than acting. So yes, I think it’s perfectly fine in theory to cast a man as Miss Hannigan as long as you’re also willing to cast a woman as Daddy Warbucks. Or a little boy as Annie. (And while we’re at it, who says Sandy can’t be a well-trained cat?….)

But is this such a black and white issue? Just this weekend, social media was awash with a debate about whether Will Smith is too light to play Richard Williams (father of tennis legends, Venus and Serena). This debate would almost certainly not have arisen had the role been given to an actor with darker skin than Williams. The problem is not that Smith does not look exactly like Richard Williams, but that he is being preferred over other actors who may in fact look more like him because his skin tone is considered to be more attractive. This is not simply a question of realism. It is just far more obvious that Hollywood is engaging in colourism when an actor is playing a real person against whom they can be directly compared. The issue runs much deeper than this one casting decision. Lighter skinned actors appear to be systematically preferred over darker skinned actors.

And this where the theoretical argument that any actor can play any role breaks down. The problem is that there is a wide gap between theory and reality. We rarely hear complaints that a black actor has been cast in a white role. Or a trans actor has been cast as a cis character. Minority groups are not only being discounted for minority roles. They are being discounted for all roles. And until we start seeing better representation of minority groups in the theatre and on screen, it feels right that we continue to call this out.

So back to Annie. Should I vote with my feet and boycott this production? I’m coming down on the side of no. Not least because it seems perverse to
cite female equality as a reason not to take my two young daughters to a musical in which the lead is played by a young girl, supported by a cast of female children. Annie also contains themes that that have particular resonance for my own children

More generally, theatre tends to be a good place for exposing children to diversity and can often prompt interesting discussions. Quaver is currently intrigued by transgender women (having read about it in Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls) and I think that seeing a man dressed as a woman on stage is a good opportunity to continue that conversation. For the record, I am not equating a man playing a female role with being transgender. In fact, that is a nuance that we already had to try and explain when the munchkins saw the poster advertising the show. Gender fluidity is something they are currently trying to get their heads around. And I think that theatre is a good place to explore it. In the last few months they have seen one pantomime with a traditional pantomime dame, another pantomime with two gender non-binary characters and supported a troupe of dancing drag queens on The Greatest Dancer. Each of those prompted discussions about diversity and gender. Perhaps Annie will be the catalyst for a conversation about equality in casting.

As for Craig. He had better be fab-u-lous.