REVIEW: Annie (Orchard Theatre, Dartford)

Little girls should be tucked up in bed by 7.30 on a school night. Last night the only bedroom in sight was the opening set of Annie at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford. We were lucky enough to be invited along to press night which meant the munchkins got a reprieve from the usual bedtime routine. Dealing with tired children would be a problem for tomorrow.

Annie is one of a handful of classic musical films that childhood Mummy used to watch on repeat before re-enacting it with her younger sister. Now a parent of two small humans who also enjoy regaling us with ‘shows’ at every opportunity, you would think Mummy would jump at the chance to share this family favourite with the munchkins. In reality, she had to give it quite a bit of thought, and not just because of bedtime. Annie is a story that hits close to home for adoptive families. We therefore had to weigh up whether it might trigger painful memories or act, as theatre so often does, as a positive catalyst for conversation. Thankfully, it proved to be the latter.

Set during the Great Depression, Annie is more than just a twee tale of an orphan who finds a family. It is the story of a young girl searching for her identity (symbolised by a set filled with puzzle pieces) at a time in which her country is carving out a new political identity . This could so easily be a rose-tinted story of how all her problems go away when she is adopted by a billionaire. But it’s not. More so than the film, this production sensitively brings out the conflict between Annie’s feelings for her unknown birth family and the very real relationship she has forged with Oliver Warbucks. Likewise, Alex Bourne masterfully conveys Warbucks’ mixed emotions as he steadfastly supports Annie in her quest to find her birth family, knowing that it will take her away from him. Adoption these days may be very different to this caricature version of 1930s orphanages but these feelings of divided loyalties will resonate with any adoptive family.

At the same time, Annie conveys a powerful message of looking to the future with a positive attitude. And there are plenty of laughs amidst the more serious moments. ‘You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile’ does what it says on the tin, before the uplifting reprise of ‘Tomorrow’ sung by Franklin D Roosevelt’s cabinet turns smiles into peals of laughter. There are some fabulous ensemble numbers which slickly combine old school musical theatre charm with more modern choreography. And who doesn’t love a tap number?!

And as for fabulous dance numbers, orphanage boss Miss Hannigan is played by none other than Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood. Mummy has written previously about her thoughts on casting Craig in this role. Her conclusion? Mummy almost always agrees with Craig’s scores on Strictly, so assumes he would concur with her raising an 8 paddle for his performance. Played just on the right side of comedy villain, Revel Horwood’s staggering drunk provides the light relief in what is ultimately quite a dark storyline. (Further entertainment was provided by Quaver (5) whispering questions about where he got his boobies!) He sings and acts the part well but unsurprisingly shines when it comes to the dance numbers. The highlight for us was ‘Easy Street’, performed with gusto by the dastardly trio of Revel Horwood, Richard Meek as the menacing Rooster and Jenny Gayner as his brash girlfriend Lily St. Regis.

The entire cast is superb, but the final mention must go to the talented group of child performers who tirelessly perform energetic dance numbers at a time when many children are (supposed to be) tucked up in bed. We had the excellent Team Empire State last night, with Ava Smith taking on the title role in her professional debut. This charismatic young performer looks to have a bright future ahead of her. As comfortable commanding the stage alone as she is fitting into adult ensemble numbers, she handles everything (including labradoodle Amber) like a true professional.

Despite the late night, the munchkins headed out of the Orchard Theatre fully dressed with beaming smiles. And for that, Mummy awards it a rating of raindrops, whiskers, kettles and mittens (aka four out of five of my favourite things).