Preview: Annie

A new production of the musical Annie finds Femke Colborne singing the praises of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s optimism

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Everyone knows the story of Annie, the loveable orphan whose only wish is to find her parents. But it’s been 10 years since a professional production of the famous Broadway musical was staged in Yorkshire. Perhaps that’s partly because the show’s unbridled, sugar-coated optimism could be hard to swallow during a recession. But despite this, Annie will return to the north with a run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse – and according to Nikolai Foster, director of the production, the timing couldn’t be better.

“Amid all the doom and gloom, I wanted to give the people of West Yorkshire a show they could be proud of – something feelgood and optimistic,” he says.

“It is set in the Great Depression, and the parallels with the world at the moment are very relevant. Annie is quite alarming in a sense, because it shows how these cycles repeat themselves. But it is also a story of true, genuine optimism. Annie is like an everyman figure, brightening people’s lives wherever she goes, and that is an incredible characteristic in such a young person.”

Foster set his heart on directing Annie three years ago when a friend took him to see an amateur show in London. “I was a bit negative about seeing it because I had a lot of preconceptions about it being very saccharine and Americana,” he admits. “But it really struck me what a fantastically constructed musical it was. It is a great example of a Broadway musical in terms of both the structure and characters.”

The new production, which stars Yorkshire actor Duncan Preston as warm-hearted billionaire Oliver Warbucks, was chosen to run during the festive season because of its family-friendly themes.

“We wanted to do something that would engage the whole family and bring young people in,” says Foster. “Families look to local theatres and arts events in the Christmas and New Year period, and we have a huge responsibility in terms of what we present. For thousands of people it will be their first experience of live theatre. Annie is a play about young people, and if a child sees there are people like them on the stage, that is a beautiful connection. You have four or five-year-olds mesmerised, tuned in and listening to every word, following the incredible journey of the characters on the stage.”

As part of the drive to involve young people, Annie and her fellow orphans were cast locally after open auditions at the Playhouse this summer. Two rotating casts of 20 children will take to the stage during the show’s two-month run. “We were keen not to just use children who had been stage school trained, although they are incredible in their own way,” says Foster.

“We wanted the show to have a more edgy, dynamic feel. It is set in what was one of the toughest cities in the world to live in at the time, and we wanted it to have a real gritty, grungy quality.”

Foster and his colleagues auditioned 450 children over one weekend – an experience he describes as “a gruelling process”.

“I knew we would have some great talent but I was genuinely blown away by how brave and talented they all were,” he says.

Foster was determined to involve local people in the show for both artistic and financial reasons. “If people come to see their child or their friend’s child, that is a bonus for us,” he says. Even Annie’s faithful dog Sandy will be played by four different dogs chosen from across Leeds and Yorkshire. “We wanted to give West Yorkshire a musical to be proud of and really engage the audience,” says Foster.

Annie, until 21 Jan, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

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