Annie (Petersfield Youth Theatre)
Festival Hall, Petersfield
December 16, 2016
Like it or not, it’s the time of year when we think about families. If we’ve got one, the chances are we’ll be spending time with them – and members will migrate across the country to do so.
The sharing of sprouts or the gift of socks is not always a prospect we look forward to with joy. It can be excruciating. And yet still we do it. Why?
Perhaps deep down it’s because family is about bonds. We might drive each other mad. But rubbing people up the wrong way is often because you’re so close to them. We’re tied together. Yes, by biology, but also by shared traditions, shared histories and experiences – and shared concerns.
But we might also be lucky enough to have what the American writer Armistead Maupin calls our “logical family”. People we’ve picked up on the way with whom we have a natural bond, people who make sense to us, people we share interest and enthusiasms with. People we care about.
And as I wondered about the great whoop of joy that was PYT’s production of Annie, it struck me that this musical is itself all about logical families. It’s about finding the right people – and sticking with them and by them through thick and thin, whether you’re an orphan, a businessman or the President of the United States.
It is clearly a lesson PYT takes to heart. Because PYT is very clearly one great big and very special logical family – and I am sure that what the fine young people of the company enjoy together will sustain them through their lives, whatever path they pursue, judging by the sheer exuberance radiating from the stage of this production – and some stellar perforances.
Matilda Shapland as the eponymous Annie might be small of stature but she is huge of voice and warm of personality – and she was joined by a cracking group of orphans, who, on the basis of the high octane vivacity of the totally splendid Hard Knock Life, all deserve the very best homes and families.
But she was in no way overawed by sharing the stage with much older performers. Harry Mackay was fine billionaire with a heart – and so proved himself to be a better man than one billionaire we can all think of who is just about to enter the White House. The hope and empathy of anther man in the White House, President Roosevelt, was admirably captured by Luke Engelen, while Jessica Blatter as Grace was excellent as a career woman who cared – and has a fantastic voice to boot.
Kiera Leather and Crispin Glancy proved that the devil does in fact have the best tunes as Lily and Rooster, trying to hornswoggle their way to a quick buck or two. Their sleazy “Easy Street” was performed with real relish and what seemed to me a shocking insight into the darker motives of the human heart – and left me making a mental note never to trust a man in a chalk-stripe suit.
But I must give a special shout out to Megan Chambers as an absolutely terrific Miss Hannigan. She inhabited a hitherto uncharted space somewhere between Cruella de Vil and Carry on Screaming, a high-kicking, ballsy, boozy, brassy dame who hoped for much from life, expected little – and got even less. But underneath all the swagger, anger and hooch quaffing she still managed to convey vulnerability – perhaps even a little of the bewildered sense of being lost like her orphan charges. Megan was brilliant in PYT’s production of Candide. She was even better in this.
For me the highlight of PYT shows is the moment you look up to see a huge cast filling the stage and turning it into one great song and dance. It is quite exhilarating. You could run the National Grid off moments like this – when the whole of the PYT family is giving out for themselves, for their fellow cast members – and for the wider family and friends out in the audience. I have picked out a few part – but everyone deserves plaudits.
And yet the moment that will live with me from this production was not one of the barnstorming numbers – and they certainly did storm barns. Nor the sweet-as-pie duets – and they were as sweet as the piles of chocolate I intend to consume over the coming weeks. It was a solitary moment in the first half – actually something that wasn’t suppose to happen, when Warbucks’ hat flew off and Grace caught it for him and stuck it back on his head. It was, I think, unintended but Harry Mackay and Jessica Blatter exchanged a quick and easy smile that spoke of affection, mutuality and respect. It spoke volumes because only the best families have moments like this. They are to be treasured – as are the families in which they can happen. PYT is one such family.
As I left the Festival Hall on something of a cloud, I was reminded of another family – of my friend Greg and his son, Sam, now an eighteen-year-old. But in my mind’s eye he is still a wide-eyed four year old. Greg once told me of Sam’s delight at coming down early one Christmas Day to see piles of presents under the glittering tree. But then his despair on Boxing Day when he bounced down the stairs to find no repeat of this vision of plenty; he’d thought that every day would be Christmas Day – and the gifts would never stop. Well, PYT make me think that Sam’s vision has come true. The PYT family don’t just bring Christmas joy. They bring that joy long into the new year – and long into the lives of its members, audiences and many, many friends. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house. I suspect there weren’t many dry eyes either.