Victoria Palace Theatre, London SW1
Opening night for new cast 15 December, 1998

"Well, it was two hours forty," said the publicist in the foyer, "but it might have got longer." Nobody, it seems, knew quite what to expect from this particular cast change. But Lily Savage in Annie is not Jerry Lewis in Damn Yankees: she stamps her character on the part of Miss Hannigan, but does not literally stop the show in order to do so.

Although we all know by now that Paul O'Grady's lippy female alter ego has pulled off the transition from camp cult to mainstream favourite without losing her earlier following, it is still a surprise to realise how tightly the nation has clasped her to its bosom and as a person, not a character (O'Grady is not even mentioned in small print in the programme). Lily, in turn, works up to the limits of the freedom which the role offers her, but not beyond: those habitual swigs from a half-bottle of bourbon were taken by Lesley Joseph in the part before her, but they look like a perfect piece of Lily-specific business. Likewise her simmering frenzy of resentment on being told that billionaire Oliver Warbucks wishes to host one of the inmates of her orphanage for Christmas: Savage nips outside to howl in frustration and claw the glass in the orphanage door, then re-enters trying insouciantly to smoke four cigarettes at once. And as for her behaviour in the climactic closing scene by turns villainous, fearful and desperately vampish the line between the orphanage tyrant and the Scouse caution is expertly blurred.

Annie in general is, to be frank, the sort of cloying, feel-good sentimentality a musical of a 1920s/1930s cartoon strip, for heaven's sake! that one wishes one could hate but is never quite allowed to. Songwriters Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin and author of the book Thomas Meehan know that the grit of the Depression down-and-outs for a single number is mere tokenism; they know that making little orphan Annie the inspiration for FDR's New Deal is a piece of shamelessly contrived optimism; they know, most of all, that they are brazenly leading their hand with the winsomeness card: as if a chorus of grubby, mischievous yet angelic orphans was not enough to for us to "ooh" and "ahh" over (and as long as those youngsters keep hitting those unison high notes, the glaziers of SW1 will never want for work), they throw in a dog for good measure.

And yet, and yet... Somehow they get away with it all. Even though "Tomorrow" is the only one of a batch of jolly enough songs to lodge in the brain, even though the show is as deliberate a confection as a big, big bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream, we restrain ourselves from going into sugar shock. For two hours and forty minutes (no longer after all), we roll over and let Savage and her comrades tickle our tummies. And there's nothing wrong with that nothing at all.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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