“We love you Miss Hannigan,” moan the orphan girls in this much-loved musical, speaking against their will and on the orders of their tyrannical overlord. But you could say that in all sincerity about Miranda Hart’s Miss H last night, after a performance that wrung every ounce of comic potential from the misanthropic old soak.
From the moment the orphanage doors are swept aside to present the drunken, lipstick-besmirched face of the ghastly old devil, Hart has the audience in the palm of her hand, delivering her fabulously villainous lines with physical and verbal skill while taking discreet (and sometimes not so discreet) swigs of gin.
“That was 1922, this is 1933. They must have got stuck in traffic,” she snarls about Annie’s abandonment and the possibility of her parents ever returning.
“Did I hear happiness in here,” she later bellows at her charges. But joy is of course elusive for her. Even when she literally stuffs the laundry man’s face into her ample bosom.
Miss Hannigan is a tragic figure as well, yearning for love, incapable of showing or receiving it and consequently seriously unpleasant. She hatches a plot with her criminal brother and his appalling girlfriend to kidnap Annie from Daddy Warbucks, claim the reward and then kill her. There is a whiff of menace in Hart’s performance but the Miranda actress was chosen for her comic charisma and she delivers, albeit at the expense of Hannigan’s monstrousness.
When the curtain closes Hart even gave the audience (all of them on their feet and cheering wildly) a little horsey gallop – a visual reminder of her sitcom persona Miranda. Perhaps she just can’t do nasty.
Hart is the main draw in this revival, of course, but Annie herself, played on the first night by Ruby Stokes (one of three performers alternating the role), is also excellent in a finely-tuned production. Stokes was more than up to the task of belting out the tunes while conveying the charm and likability of a girl who always dreams about tomorrow, without even the slightest hint of stage school ick.
If I had one minor gripe, it is that the dog goes missing after the interval. Annie’s four-legged companion Sandy (a Labradoodle played with utmost professionalism by Amber) makes little more than a token trot across the stage in the second half when the Hannigan siblings’ plot unravels.
Props too to Alex Bourne as Daddy Warbucks, Annie’s billionaire saviour, who is excellent at capturing his character’s loneliness before his life is transformed, although could perhaps have pepped up his growling short temper at the beginning in order to heighten the impact of his transformative journey.
I also enjoyed a hilarious moment when Annie meets US president Franklin D Roosevelt and inspires him to kickstart his New Deal that will get American out of the doldrums of the Depression. With a US President and billionaire as two of the principal characters I expected a few more quips about modern US politics, but I suppose you can’t have everything.
What we do get is feel-good, escapist joy that doesn’t ask too many hard questions or make too many demands of its audience. It’s fun, riotous and heartfelt with some thumping good tunes and an optimistic message. Given what’s been happening in the UK and around the world lately, it’s probably just the tonic we need, with or without a shot of Miss Hannigan’s hard stuff…
Annie is at Piccadilly Theatre until Jan 6 (Miranda Hart performing until Sept 17)