Annie review at Piccadilly Theatre, London – ‘Miranda Hart gives winning performance’
There's no denying that Miranda Hart's above-the-title billing as the star of Annie is unashamed stunt casting. She is a TV star with an existing fanbase, but no prior stage musical experience, and is greeted with a roar of warmth from the audience the moment she appears.
But she proceeds to earn it. Never mind that she doesn't so much belt her songs as bellow them, Hart brings an eccentric air of baffled but winning charm to the role of Miss Hannigan, the comic villain who runs an all-girls orphanage in Depression-era New York.
Hart once said of her eponymous TV series: "It now feels like people are allowed to openly like an uncool show." The same thing could be said of Annie. This 1977 Tony-winning Broadway warhorse is corny and old-fashioned.
The title character, an 11-year-old orphan, dreams of being reunited with the parents who dropped her off at the orphanage as a baby with a promise to come back to reclaim her one day. When a lonely billionaire bachelor called Daddy Warbucks does a good deed and takes her in for Christmas, their mutual neediness draws them to each other and he seeks to make her wishes come true.
But the great joy of Nikolai Foster's production – originally staged at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2011 – is how lovingly it conjures the period, and how lightly and brightly it plays the show without sending it up, yet also not drowning it in earnestness.
Foster and choreographer Nick Winston clearly love the musical with sincerity, and trust that it doesn't need too many embellishments or interventions. Even Hart is, in the circumstances, surprisingly restrained, and Alex Bourne plays Daddy Warbucks dead straight, melting before your eyes as love for a little girl comes into his life.
The comic honours instead go to the troupe of young orphans, and especially on press night by the diminutive, scene-stealing Nicole Subebe as Molly (part of one of three teams who play Annie's fellow orphans). Meanwhile, Annie is played with a delightful confidence by Ruby Stokes (who also alternates with two others). There's also cherishable comic character work from Jonny Fines as Rooster and Djalenga Scott as his partner Lily.
Colin Richmond's set may echo Matilda’s jigsaw lightbox pieces a little self-consciously, but it has spectacle and makes smooth transitions between locations. An advertising jingle heard in the show states, "You're never fully dressed without a smile." Audiences who leave the Piccadilly Theatre beaming may find themselves feeling over-dressed, so wide will those smiles be.