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Annie (Nicola Klein reviews)



Cambridge Operatic Society

From the moment the fine nine-piece band strikes up in the pit you know you’re in for a pretty professional treat. Annie isn’t an easy show to bring off with real aplomb because it’s so well known that the audience arrives with pre-set expectations. Chris Cuming (director) and Lucas Elkin (musical director) have met that problem head on and developed a fresh, lively take on this musical theatre stalwart. The acting is naturalistic and convincing across a large cast with some imaginative ensemble work. The singing from almost everyone is vibrant and tuneful with excellent diction. Cuming’s decision to go for a fairly spare set, well lit by Alan Morgan’s designs comes off pretty well too.

Annie is, of course, a classic and strong rags-to-riches story set firmly against the realistic historical background – the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash. That’s why it works as well as it does. In this enjoyable production the sentiment is never allowed to be too saccharine and there’s plenty of grit. Suzanne Emerson as head of the orphanage, Miss Hannigan, is, for example seriously nasty. Yes, her simpering mood changes are funny but she is actually an appalling abuser of children and Emerson conveys that effectively. In contrast rich-voiced Steven Waring, the super-rich business man who eventually recognises that money isn’t everything and that human relationships matter more gives us a fully rounded, very warm, thought-provoking character. And there’s an outstanding performance from Emma Viecelli as his assistant, Grace. She sings magnificently and her acting – signalling to Waring when he’s on the phone, managing the staff, offering opinions – is invisible. And that’s always the sign of an actor who really is on top of the job.

And so to the children. The company is using two teams for its six-performance run. Phoebe Poulter-Kerry played Annie on press night with the rest of the Washington Team. What talent! She finds all the feistiness and wistfulness which Annie needs, projects a shining stage personality and sings as if she was born doing it. In a show in which she is rarely off stage her very finest moment is singing in a cracked voice at the beginning of Act 2 when she hears bad news. Few adults could bring it off as well as Phoebe does. She even manages the Sandy the dog (Kiyo) like a pro. I hope we shall hear and see more of her. The other eight children who make up the orphanage chorus are nicely individualised with some especially colourful work from Lydia Amy Ward as Molly and their dancing (choreography by Chris Cuming) is impressively accomplished.

Non-pro groups don’t have the luxury of preview performances at which to sort the technical glitches. There were some sound problems on press night (screechy sounding children, for instance) and one or two stage management issues but it would have taken a pretty discerning professional ear/eye to pick them up and most of the audience were delighted with the show – and rightly so.

First published by Sardines:
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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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