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Set in 1930s New York during The Great Depression, brave young Annie is forced to live a life of misery at Miss Hannigan’s orphanage. Her luck soon changes when she's chosen to spend a fairytale Christmas with famous billionaire, Oliver Warbucks. Meanwhile, spiteful Miss Hannigan has other ideas and hatches a plan to spoil Annie’s search for her true family…

With its Tony® Award-winning book and score, including the unforgettable songs It’s The Hard-Knock Life, Easy Street, I Don’t Need Anything But You and Tomorrow, you can bet your bottom dollar that you’ll love it!

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Our review on Annie

Annie - Opera House, Manchester - Tuesday 19th September 2023 by Karen Ryder

Our Rating

When you think about it, Annie is a musical set in the American Great Depression in which an orphaned child is mistreated by her carer, manipulated by criminals, lied to, sold for cash, and ordered to go and live with a strange man she never met!  Yet it is also somehow one of the most nurturing, uplifting, optimistic stories, of innocent and unconditional love you are ever likely to behold.  Wrongs are righted, justice prevails, and there’s even the opportunity to give a stray dog his forever home!  Throw in some humour, unruly children and absolutely belting songs and there is no surprise that it has not only stood the test of time, but it is open to reinvention and reimagining whilst embracing its audience both loyal and new every step of the way.  In short, it is a classic.

First came Harold Gray’s New York Times comic strip of Little Orphaned Annie in the 1930’s.  As these were slotted together to form a book, none other than lyricist-director, Martin Charnin received a copy for Christmas in 1971, and his mind started whirring with the possibility of a musical.  He pitched the idea to colleagues Charles Strouse and Thomas Meehan, a Tony-winning composer and a short story writer for The New Yorker respectively.  Fourteen months later, Annie was completed, but it would take a good few years more to convince producers to give it a chance.  But convince them they did, and Annie eventually got her name in lights in 1976 and walked the great white way of Broadway in 1977.  The movie of 1982 brought Annie to a whole new audience and secured her place in popular culture and the hearts of every child who ever dreamed the glittery dreams of showbiz.  A remake was born in 1999 and again in 2014, pulling in A list movie stars and music moguls.  So why the brief history lesson?  Well, the Annie presented on stage varies slightly to any of the movies you may have seen, with additional songs, expanded sub plots, and a definite nod to Christmas as a reminder to where, for Martin Charnin, it all began.

This evenings production not only presented an undeniably brilliant cast, but was testament to the magnitude and heartbeat of our theatre world - understudies, alternates, and swings.  Rooster was played by Lukin Simmonds, which meant Lukin’s roles needed to be covered.  In steps swing Matthew Sweet to play Bundles, Bert Healy and Ikes, as does swing Belle Kizzy Green to play Sophie, Mrs. Pugh and Frances Perkins.  All three performers were absolutely flawless.  Simmonds brought down the house with a mixture of charm, showmanship and pizazz in Easy Street, Sweet effortlessly flipped from character to character with fancy flair and conviction, and Green took centre stage to introduce us to the homeless and reinvent herself as Mrs. Pugh!

Of course, the name on everybody’s lips tonight though was the gorgeous and fab-u-lous (insert your impersonation of these words here) Craig Revel Horwood.  A household name, CRH is best known for being our glamourously grumpy Strictly Come Dancing judge and has appeared in every single series.  Those who were unaware of his theatrical background (Miss Saigon, Crazy For You, & a director & choreographer on hit shows), got the shock of their lives as his sensational singing voice rang throughout the theatre.  CRH is showbiz personified.  It runs through his veins and bursts out of him like sunshine.  He staggers across the stage as an inebriated Miss Hannigan, being positively gruesome to the children, whilst attempting to seduce every male adult!  Little Girls and Easy Street are CRH big numbers and what numbers they are!  I have seen CRH perform a few times before so knew the talent on offer, but even I was blown away by the strength of charisma, his intoxicating voice, humour, power, and all round showbiz brilliance.  What a performance.

Olivier Award and TMA nominee Alex Bourne (Hairspray, Mamma Mia, Chicago) is our Daddy Warbucks.  A stern business fighting machine trillionaire, he carves out a beautiful softness and vulnerability whenever Annie is around, making his performance appear honest and rounded.  The partnership with Annie seems genuinely filled with affection, yet Bourne is also able to make us belly laugh with his tiny nuances, such as his stint at the radio station and lack of understanding on how a microphone works.  Amelia Adams (Kiss Me Kate, Jersey Boys, Hairspray) sparkles as Grace Farrell, and as her characters name, performs with an elegant grace and a timeless class.  Adams brings a confidence to this character that sits well and allows Grace to always be equal.  David Burrows (An Officer & A Gentleman, Half A Sixpence, My Fair Lady) multi roles as Lt Ward, President Roosevelt and Jimmy Johnson and each role couldn’t be more different.  Burrows switches from comedy to command, leaving many in the audiences unaware that these roles were actually played by the same actor. 

And of course there is a cast full of vivacious young people too - a rotation of three teams, so I wouldn’t want to name and get it wrong as we aren’t told who performs on each day.  Make no mistake that these performers are professional and mean business.  They prove their worth and lay out their talent within the first few minutes by owning the entire show and raising the roof with the much loved ensemble piece ‘It’s A Hard Knock Life’.  It was like a giant cup of coffee to wake everyone up and spoke directly to any doubters of the quality and standard that our young generation can bring.  Their confidence was infectious and never once trickled into pretentious or old school ‘showbiz’ sickly smiles and so forth.  Quite the opposite, this cast of young people were fierce, full of personality and character and offered some of the best facial expressions I have ever witnessed.  They weren’t to be fobbed off with mere reactions of ‘ahh’ and ‘aww’ from their audience but demanded the same standing ovation and respect as everyone else.  Instead, the instinctual ‘ahh’s’ were reserved for Amber who played Sandy the dog, and – not that I’m used to reviewing animals - but Amber was perfect, hitting every cue to perfection and with lots of tail wags to boot.     

Now there is just the little matter of the titular character Annie.  Who can carry off those huge numbers, be on stage for almost the entire show, charm the audience the way she charms Daddy Warbucks, have a self assured attitude that never spills over into arrogance, show a caring nature beyond her years, bring hope and life to a bunch of disparate business people and politicians, have an infectious personality that lights up the entire stage, and on top of being a sensational performer yourself, ensuring you remember all your lines, lyrics, choreography, blocking, and mannerisms, also be in command of a dog at the same time, ensuring they do everything they are supposed to do as well!  I’ll tell you who achieved all of that tonight - Sharangi Gnanavarathan.  What a star, and so worthy of the headline bow and standing ovation.  Absolutely incredible.

The stage is visible from the moment you enter the auditorium, displaying the orphanage with its wrought iron beds.  It is framed and backdropped with an impressive collage of jigsaw pieces.  Some pieces of the puzzle are missing and light up in various colours throughout the show, whilst the rest are a black and white street map of NYC, with sporadic red scribbles showing the whereabouts of runaway Annie.  This design by Colin Richmond is quite mesmerising and grabbed my full attention way before the show had begun.  The thought and detail throughout this show is so subtle that it may even be subliminal, but it works its magic.

The show is sprinkled with little nuggets that ensure we are placed firmly in the right era, whether it be historical quotes from Roosevelt “The only thing to fear is fear itself,” references to the notorious gangster of the time Al Capone, famous art work such as The Mona Lisa, right down to the Broadway show the characters are watching.  Even though it isn’t named, the show is represented with sailors costumes and Anything Goes was the big show at the time of The Great Depression so is subtly implied.  It seems everything has been thought of.  This scene where Daddy Warbucks takes Annie to Broadway is luminous.  We have glamourous moving spotlights flooding not only the stage, but the audience, a song and dance routine that raises the endorphins, and finishes so cleverly by the cast transposing their positions to create a horse and carriage ride around central park from a theatre seat.  Costumes alight the stage with creativity, such as the infamous NYC yellow taxi, including flashing taxi lights, and no you’ve not read that wrong – this is indeed a costume! 

The musical score in Annie is timeless and so perfectly rousing, emotive and full of hooks that will leave you humming your own Annie medley for the next week or so.  Tomorrow is reprised throughout the show and with good reason for it does what it says on the tin and fills you with an overwhelming sense of hope and positivity, and when the acapella harmonies kick in on one of the reprises, you will be left brimming with tears at its sheer beauty and power.  The second act opens with ‘You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile’ and the audience are encouraged to join in, as the cast interact with us directly and also set the scene by using the neon applause signs to firmly place us in a radio station.  Humour at play, we get to witness a foley artist, have a little tap dance to entertain us, and indulge in the fun, merriment and beautiful harmonies of this wonderful cast.

The second act also treats us to the showstopping number ‘I Don’t Need Anything But You.’  It takes us into Christmas and is so magical and full of feel good vibes that you don’t care that in reality we’ve not even had Halloween.  Instead, you are ready to join in, hang the holly and swig the eggnog.  As the show comes to a close, the audience are encouraged to join in with the cast in singing a rendition of ‘Tomorrow’ and nobody needed asking twice as it wraps itself around you and lifts you up in a way that is impossible to resist.  To be a part of a huge theatre all belting out a song of euphoric positivity was a moment that will stay with me for quite some time.

Well let me tell you, it seems I was fully dressed tonight, as I wore a smile throughout the entire evening as the glorious performers unleashed their effervescent talent amidst our soggy Manchester skies.  This is exactly what I love about musical theatre, the ability to take us away from reality and feel all the feels.  Annie may have its dark side with a bundle of baddies trying to sell a child for their own gain, but it is ultimately wholesome, family friendly, and so jam packed with some of the biggest musical theatre belters you’re ever likely to hear that I have no doubt you’ll be humming them all the way home.  And next time you face that annoying co-worker, or realise your report or homework is overdue, and the hum drum of life feels too much, you’ll remember those words from Annie with hope and relax a little; ”Tomorrow!  You’re only a day away.”


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