What do you get if you take 200 bright young things, put them through an intensive week of rehearsals and add one dog?

It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the first night of Annie, the New Theatre's first-ever youth production, was a triumph. The actors, aged between eight and 25, had only a week to learn their lines and rehearse, but they must have somehow crammed months of practice into that week. There seemed to be no missed cues or faulty dance steps, and the cast worked together as a whole in a way which is rare for productions of this size.

Annie was a risky choice for the youth production, as the schmaltzy rags-to-riches story can seem like hackneyed tosh in the wrong hands. But the strategy for this production worked superbly: keep the plot moving, keep the songs and jokes coming and play the whole thing straight from the heart. They even managed to bring in the historical context and have some fun with the 1930s background.

Lucy Anne Wallis was an inspired choice for the part of Annie. From her powerful voice to her expressive face, everything about her performance was outstanding - even more so when you consider that she is only ten, younger than the character she plays.

Laura Nicole Chiumento was equally excellent in the very different role of Miss Hannigan, providing the required mixture of sexiness and menace. Of course, the real show-stealer was Pepsi the dog, playing the part of Sandy. He did add some unwanted harmonies when Annie sang Tomorrow for the first time, but you can't blame him for sharing in the cast's enthusiasm and overdoing it occasionally.

But it would be wrong to single out individual performers. The real strength of this show was that it was an ensemble effort, and that every single person on stage played a part in making this a sparkling production. Praise should also go to the behind-the-scenes team, a group of ten young

people led by six professionals, who had such a great part in keeping everything going smoothly. The themes of the musical were very clear: that hard work, optimism and enthusiasm can bring great success. Coincidentally or otherwise, this was just what the performance itself proved. The story of the way these young people produced a show in just one week is more implausible than the plot of Annie, but last night a crowded and cheering theatre saw the magical results for themselves.

Kate Griffin