As Annie, Victoria Sian Lewis was just a little joy, unfazed by her unimpressed dog pal Sandy, and taking everything around her in her stride while pulling off a very demanding role. Su Pollard was great fun as boozy orphanage owner Miss Hannigan, and her comic turn tended to lift the show each time she appeared. A strong performance from Philip Andrew as baddy Rooster also livened things up. As billionaire Daddy Warbucks, David McAlister was either speeding through the advancement of the plot, or slowing it down with well-intentioned, but slightly dull ballads, although his relationship with Annie worked nicely.
In plenty of places, Annie hit the spot, and was as sweet and lovely as intended. It’s such a cute story, and songs like Maybe and Tomorrow will always bring a lump to the throat. But at its worst, particularly as the show drew to a close, it was so heavily laboured it became reminiscent of a substandard BBC comedy sketch, spelling everything out to the audience and dragging out cliched gags.
True, this is one of those shows that is pretty inextricable from its film version, although there are vast differences. Aileen Quinn, Carol Burnett and Albert Finney loom large. It’s not really fair to have to carp on about that, because obviously a production deserves to be reviewed on its own merits. But still. Some of the strongest songs known from the film (like Dumb Dog, We Got Annie, and Sign) don’t make an appearance in the stage show, and instead there are a some slow numbers from Daddy Warbucks and a few extra historical scene setters. The stage finale – a Christmas song about Roosevelt’s New Deal, for Pete’s sake, just couldn’t compare with the last party scene of the movie.
That’s enough about that. One problem, like Footloose the week before at the Empire, is that there is something inescapably English about the production. Again, like Footloose, the American accents slipped about, and a slight British panto camp replaced the grimy New York toughness of the characters as perhaps they should be. The relatively simple sets, often just painted backdrops, added to a comic book, 1920s style which I liked. The production was more about selling a good story than dazzling with showy gimmicks.
Yet overall time really seemed to drag, although this wasn’t down to the efforts of the cast, especially Annie and the children, who did their job of charming the audience into submission. The problem was the audience – talking, messing, rustling, moving, singing and coughing to such an unpleasant degree throughout it was like trying to watch a performance in a busy pub. There was a constant buzz of noise. A row of tweenagers in front of us each remained attached to their Blackberrys, texting and filming the whole time. Apologies for coming over all Miss Hannigan, but it was just hard to believe an audience of children and adults alike could be so rude sat in a theatre. It wasn’t far off that scene out of Gremlins, where they all go to the movies. Eventually, it was impossible to concentrate on the show, and it can only be hoped that subsequent audiences don’t ruin it for others in the same way. A very unusual experience, and a real shame.