THE year is 1933, the Great Depression is at its height, and at a grubby municipal orphanage in New York, it’s a hard knock life for the little girl inmates, left in the care of gin-soaked superintendent Miss Hannigan, forced to work at sewing machines all day, and surviving on a diet of cold mush.
Annie | Playhouse, Edinburgh | Rating ****
The whole story of orphan Annie, though, is about how these Dickensian conditions fail to crush the spirit of one little red-haired 11-year-old who knows that her parents loved her, because they left behind a locket and a note, saying that they would be back for her.
In no time, thanks to a fairytale stroke of luck, she is carried off to the Fifth Avenue apartment of a billionaire called Warbucks who takes to her so strongly he decides to adopt her, and thence (in this left-field 1970s stage version of the story) to the White House, where Annie slams out a few verses of her big anthem Tomorrow, and inspires President Roosevelt to adopt the New Deal, setting the US economy on the road to recovery.
In Nikolai Foster’s big, energetic touring production, though, the focus remains firmly on the personal story of Annie, her gorgeous dog Sandy, and her triangular relationship with boozy, money-grubbing Miss Hannigan –played here by Scottish superstar Elaine C Smith, to roars of well-deserved applause – and Alex Bourne’s Warbucks.
There’s a slightly over-busy set by Ben Cracknell, featuring a puzzling jigsaw theme; and although Nikolai Foster has said that he wants to make the story less sentimental, there’s a sense that he perhaps overdoes it slightly with the music, which comes over as more jangled and brash, and less tunefully satisfying, than usual.
With a terrific 20-strong cast belting out the show’s great numbers. though – from the poignant Maybe to Miss Hannigan’s great jazz-inflected Easy Street – there’s never any doubt that this terrific American fairytale of a show is going to win the audience’s hearts.
On Tuesday night, little Madeleine Haynes – one of the show’s three alternating Annies – gave us a gorgeous, feisty, shouty little girl mellowing movingly into a beloved daughter.
And if Nicola Sturgeon, just re-elected as First Minister, is truly interested in ending austerity, then she could do worse than cut along to the Playhouse this week, and meditate on this iconic American dream-come-true about the historic moment when one great nation turned from a politics of cruelty towards a politics of generosity and hope, and changed world history in the process.
• At the Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 21 May, and on tour