Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Annie - The Sunderland Empire

Book: Thomas Meehan
Music: Charles Strouse
Lyrics: Martin Charnin
Director/Choreographer: Roger Hannah
Reviewer:Ian Cain

Ask any aficionado of musical theatre to name their favourite orphan and they’ll probably say either Annie or Oliver Twist. The heart-warming, rags-to-riches tale of the red-headed ragamuffin is playing at Sunderland Empire Theatre all this week and ‘Annie’ certainly charmed and delighted the capacity crowd on press night.

The musical is based on the 1920s American cartoon strip, ‘Little Orphan Annie’, and was also immortalised for the silver screen in a blockbusting movie with a stellar cast that included Carol Burnett, Albert Finney, Ann Reinking, Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters. However, the 1982 film, and a subsequent Disney re-make starring Kathy Bates, Victor Garber and Alan Cumming, have failed to eclipse the enduring popularity of the stage version.

Two youngsters, Chloe Greig and Lydia Tunstall, are sharing the title role this week, and at last night’s performance it was Lydia who was living ‘the hard knock life’ in the New York Municipal Orphanage with the fearsome Miss Hannigan. Miss Tunstall’s stage presence, acting ability and vocal skills are top-notch and far beyond her years. She brings to the part a feistiness that suits the character perfectly and her performance is not in the least bit ‘stagey.’ Lydia and the rest of the orphans (Annabel Mallin, Sophie Foster, Rebecca Chapman, Katie Smith, Amanda Thursby, Ellie Jackson, Nina Walsh, Emily Thompson and Louise Hepplewhite) are only outdone in the ‘aahhh’ stakes by Danny the Dog as Annie’s faithful four-legged friend, Sandy.

Su Pollard fails to heed the well-known showbiz dictum of not working with children and animals to reprise the role of mean-spirited Miss Agatha Hannigan, the orphanage manager with a penchant for Jack Daniels. This is Miss Pollard’s fourth tour of the production and she has made the role her very own. She follows (or should that be drunkenly staggers?) in the footsteps of actresses including Sheila Hancock, Lesley Joseph, Vicki Michelle and her former ‘Hi-De-Hi’ co-star Ruth Madoc. Su draws on her vast experience as a comedy actress to portray the character as a comedic, and slightly tragic, lonely old lush who is longing for love. Her sensational singing voice is best utilised in her signature song ‘Little Girls’, but is also a highlight in ‘Easy Street’, too. Pollard’s immense stage presence is such that she steals every scene she appears in and is missed in those that she doesn’t. Her scenes with her brother, Rooster (James Gavin), and his girlfriend Lily St Regis (Sophie McEwan) provide many of the best comedy moments of the show.

David McAlister, a performer who never disappoints, is every bit the definitive Oliver Warbucks and his portrayal of the billionaire’s transformation from the hard-nosed businessman to doting ‘Daddy’ is skilfully executed. There is a genuine rapport between him and Lydia Tunstall that is almost tangible. His musical numbers are delivered with a voice that is strong and clear and hits every note with precision and perfection.

Simone Craddock plays Grace Farrell, Oliver Warbucks’ charming and long-suffering secretary. It is obvious to all except Warbucks that she holds a torch that burns brightly for him, and it is only Annie’s presence in the mansion that is the catalyst for their romance to blossom.

The talented ensemble perform Roger Hannah’s choreography with energy and enthusiasm and turn the big numbers into real showstoppers. Add to this a live orchestra, under the supervision of Mark Crossland and John Donovan, superb sets by Alan Miller Bunford and dynamic direction and the result is a production that shines brighter than Annie’s silver locket. At last, ‘Tomorrow’ is here – and so is Annie. Don’t miss it!

‘Annie’ runs at The Sunderland Empire from Tuesday 25 to Saturday 29 August 2009.
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