[Review] Annie: The Musical at the New Theatre in Oxford

By Jessica Durston - 19 April 2023

Arts and CultureAttractionsOpinion and Features

Swindon Link’s Jessica Durston attended the press night of Annie: The Musical at Oxford’s New Theatre and sat down to pen a review of the performance.

Returning to Oxford’s New Theatre for the press night of Annie: The Musical was an absolute treat.

The collective talents of Thomas Meehan (Book), Charles Strouse (Music), Martin Charnin (Lyrics) and Nikolai Foster (Director) make for a wonderful musical.

Within the beautiful art deco surroundings of the interior of the theatre, you really felt like you had been whisked back to the 1930s for this show.

I’m sure most people are familiar with either one of the Annie movies and know the story well, but for those that don’t, I will summarise the plot.

Annie tells the story of a 10-year-old orphan girl in the 1930s who longs to find her parents and escape the rundown orphanage she boards in, run by the selfish and scheming Miss Hannigan. All Annie has are the clothes on her back, half a locket from her parents, her fellow orphan friends, and a stray dog named Sandy.

When Grace – assistant to the billionaire Mr Warbucks – comes looking for a child to take to their home for the Christmas period, Annie’s world is turned upside down, and for the better. Miss Hannigan, her brother Rooster, and his accomplice Lily start concocting a sinister plan to settle the score, whilst Annie teaches Mr Warbucks that there is more to life than money - and she should know, as she has never found herself with any.

This heart-warming tale explores themes of family, loss, friendship, love and the different types of wealth a person can possess.

So let’s start with the cast. Spoiler alert - they’re all brilliant and all deserve a paragraph each, but I will discuss a few individuals in more detail so this does not end up becoming a piece of dissertation length.

Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hannigan is the casting choice nobody can ignore when attending the show. All concerns as to whether he may have been a celebrity vehicle used to sell tickets disappeared when he first staggered out on stage completely in character as the drunken, comedic, villain.

Craig has excellent commanding stage presence and is a real seasoned professional. His dancing was of course, brilliant, but he surprised me with his fantastic vocals. His comedic timing was good, and he leaned into his character’s New York drawl and really let himself go.

Annie was played by child actress Harlie Barthram. She is so young but so accomplished and she carried herself very professionally. She did not look out of place amongst the leading adult cast members.

Her vocals were really strong and pure and brought the well-loved classic musical numbers to life. She had obviously also been working hard on her American accent which was strong and maintained through the performance.

Alex Bourne took on the role of Mr Warbucks and Amelia Adams played his close colleague, Grace. The pair had great on-screen chemistry both with each other, and with Harlie as Annie. Their vocals were flawless and they really brought these key characters to life.

Paul French and Billie-Kay acted opposite each other as Rooster and Lily, the musical’s skeevy and seedy couple, in cahoots with Miss Hannigan. The pair really embraced their villainous characters and their numbers, alongside Craig as Miss Hannigan, were really special.

Moreover, the production’s use of real dogs to play Sandy was fabulous. I think the four legged performers garnered the biggest and most excitable reactions from the audience. The dogs were supplied by Urban Paws UK (more information on the organisation can be found at https://urbanpawsuk.com).

Being set in 1930s New York, the story is taking place within the time of the Great Depression. This is cleverly reflected in the set piece that was the mainstay of musical’s stage design. The borders of the stage, and the backdrop features a jigsaw piece design. The pieces are pulled apart, scattered and broken. This nicely represents the broken economy and society of the New York in the depression era.

The incomplete, scattered, jigsaw pieces also work well as a metaphor for the ‘missing pieces’ or holes that the characters have inside them. The orphans are all missing a family and a loving home; Miss Hannigan, Rooster and Lily are missing money or financial stability at the very least; and Mr Warbucks and Grace are missing love and need an injection of happiness and fulfilment within their lives.

The orphanage interior and street settings were carefully crafted with props and dull, cool, lighting choices to exude the bleak environment that the characters find themselves living in downtown. It feels almost Dickensian. Furthermore, the carting on and off of the bigger set pieces was smooth, with all the even the children) lending a hand.

As well as designing inspired set pieces to create a sense of place, Colin Richmond was also in charge of the wonderful costumes that helped create the illusion of the more conservative 30s, whilst still being eye-catching and helping the characters to stand out on stage.

‘It’s the Hard Knock Life’ was definitely one of the stand out numbers. All the child actors performing the orphan roles sing and dance in perfect chaotic union and the power behind their harmonised cries is something to behold. There is such strength within their togetherness and you really believe every word of the anthem.

The little stars had quite complex choreography to learn and delivered some fantastic vocal performances, on top of having to maintain American accents. They were all very professional and focused, and an absolute joy to watch.

Another highlight  – or should I say highlights – was ‘Easy Street’ and its reprise. This jazzy, swinging number gave Craig (Miss Hannigan), Paul (Rooster) and Billie (Lily) a real chance to shine. And that was exactly what they did.

Additionally, the cast’s rendition of ‘NYC’ is showstopping. The swing performers were so impressive and Nick Winston’s dazzling choreography was back with a vengeance. The number showcases the other flashy, rich and fun side of New York. Grace and Mr Warbucks’ New York is a very different place to the one that Miss Hannigan, the orphans and the other street dwellers find themselves in.

Societal clashes explored in the musical go further than just rich vs poor with the idea of the war between the Democratic and Republican parties also permeating the story. Hoover and Roosevelt’s difference in leadership features heavily in the plot.

Furthermore, it was wonderful to have the live orchestra playing the musical’s iconic track list, and filling the historical theatre with their wonderful sound.

For those that adore the 1982 film classic, fear not, the story you all know and love, and the nostalgia, is still there. The musical gives a nice nod to the silver screen hit, but adds its own twist.

Annie: The Musical is fun for the whole family and well worth a watch, so don’t wait until ‘Tomorrow’, book a ticket now! ‘Bet your bottom dollar’ that you’ll not regret it!

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