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Review: Annie at Liverpool Empire ****

It’s the hard-knock life for many people at the moment – but in the history of boom and bust, the Great Depression of the early 1930s takes some topping.

That’s the backdrop of this musical favourite whose diminutive heroine sweeps all before her with her relentless optimism and exhortation that ‘the sun will come out tomorrow’.

Resistance to the perky, red-headed moppet is, it appears, futile, as she even – in an imagining of an encounter with the president and his advisors – inspires what became FDR’s famous ‘New Deal’ to help millions of destitute American families back into work.

Resistance (if there was any likely to begin with) is also fairly futile when it comes to this equally perky touring version of the West End revival of Annie, directed with vigour by Nikolai Foster.

Young Annie (Zoe Akinyosade on press night) is convinced her real parents will return one day to claim her from the orphanage where she was left one December 11 years ago, her undimmable optimism bringing her into conflict with its matron Miss Hannigan.

Falling on her feet by being embraced into the uberwealthy world of Oliver Warbucks for Christmas, Annie is given hope that she might finally realise her dream. But it turns out not everyone is as altruistic and honest as the billionaire industrialist.

It’s essentially a story of good triumphing over evil. Good in this case being Annie, ‘Daddy’ Warbucks (Alex Bourne) and his female factotum Grace Farrell (understudy Dawn Williams shining brightly) who together with some help from J Edgar Hoover’s FBI best the terrible triumvirate of the awful Miss Hannigan, her psychopath brother Rooster and his moll Lily.

Paul O’Grady was, of course, due to play the orphanage’s monstrous matron at the Empire until his sudden death earlier this year.

But alternate Miss Hannigan Craig Revel Horwood is no slouch as a replacement, stepping into the gin-soaked harridan’s size tens with an irresistibly sly glint in his eye, a twinkle in his toes and a really fine singing voice to boot. He even elicits a modicum of sympathy because let’s face it, all that squealing from those tiny charges would drive anyone to drink eventually.

Top: Annie (Zoe Akinyosade) and the cast of Annie. Photo by Paul Coltas. Above: Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hannigan.

Akinyosade is a confident young performer who more than holds her own with the adults on stage, as do her fellow orphans, while the big ensemble numbers (both young folk and adults) are impressively delivered – underscored by a punchy eight-strong orchestra in the pit whose playing evokes an enticing aural sense of the era.

Colin Richmond runs the full gamut of colour tones in his sets, from muted depressive browns to jazzy Deco hues, with rainbow confetti-like jigsaw pieces arcing above.

The lighting also evokes the gloom of the time, although on occasions it's so stygian it makes it a struggle to pick out all the action taking place, particularly in the orphanage and homeless ‘Hooverville’ scenes.

I even wondered if I’d simply missed the dog along the way, perhaps loitering in some shady corner, but apparently Sandy was absent due to canine cast illness.

What there were on opening night were lots of – very well-behaved – young people in the audience.

Hopefully they may take away more from the story than just kids getting one over on adults, although it seems a missed opportunity that there’s no programme piece about the wider era in which the story it set.


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