Much-loved musical Annie is back in the West End for a short run at the Arts Theatre, in a very simple, minimalist production that is both naively charming and unevenly directed. Even though it is not advertised – you can only see it on posters – and is an amateur production, it is being played at a West End venue. The Jr at the end of the title indicates this is an edited version made to be played by youngsters.
This family musical tells the story of orphan Annie, who believes her parents will come back for her, and of how millionaire Mr Warbucks takes her in for Christmas but decides to adopt her. Baddie Miss Hannigan, the orphanage matron, gets in the way and plots to get – through her brother and his girlfriend – a large sum of money from Mr Warbuck by pretending to be Annie’s parents. However, their plot fails miserably and, after finding the truth about Annie’s real parents, Mr Warbucks officially adopts Annie. With signature songs like ‘It’s the hard-knock life’ and Tomorrow’, Annie has been revived quite a number of times, particularly on Broadway, with several US and UK tours, and has become a true classic.
This current production, which uses the set of American Idiot – also playing at the Arts Theatre – needs just a few props and pieces of furniture throughout the show, and does not have a live band (or it was hidden somewhere?). It is, however, quite effective as nothing distracts the audience from the singing and performing, even though the space feels at times too small. It is obvious that the children have received thorough training in choreography and singing, but the acting has been slightly left behind. Particularly during the orphanage scenes, some of the lines sound just said out loud instead of performed, and there was some confusion in movement at some points, particularly on the first scene.
On the other hand, Gracie Weldon in the title role is one shiny little star, singing beautifully and outweighing her fellow members of the cast nearly every time. Her natural charisma, together with a strong stage presence, makes her the stand-out of the evening. Jessica Niles as Miss Hannigan is the comedic element – if not a bit panto at time – of the production, getting laughs from the audience in every scene. However, Ashley Blake as Mr Warbucks is vocally weak at times and does not really match Weldon’s energy on stage, which is partly compensated by Bethany Wilkinson’s sweet Miss Farrell. However, bearing in mind the nature of the production, they all do a great job in bringing this story to life, with the added challenge of directing children.
An all-time crowd pleaser, Annie Jr is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Despite its flaws, it is charming in its own way, delivering touching moments and funny scenes and keeping children of all ages entertained throughout. Also, hearing Weldon sing ‘Tomorrow’ is worth the ticket!
Annie Jr is playing at the Arts Theatre until 31 August. For more information and tickets, see the Arts Theatre website. Image by Arts Theatre.