Annie taps new talent

Hundreds of hopefuls auditioned for a Christmas production of Annie. Nick Ahad talks to all those who will take their bow on the stage in Leeds

It is when you actually spot the two tiny girls who are to be playing Annie, sitting on the sofa chatting excitedly, their feet barely reaching the floor, that the scale of the task ahead – for them – really hits you.

On stage, the success of a production of the musical Annie, obviously, hinges on the performance of the young girl who is cast in the demanding title role. You know this and you know that unless the producers find a very young looking adult to play Annie, then a very young performer will be shouldering a large responsibility. But it is only when you meet two youngsters about to take on the task that you look and think – are those two little girls really going to be fronting a major theatrical production?

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Yes they are. It will be the job of Phoebe Roberts, 11, from Liversedge, and Sophie Downham, a 12-year-old from Pudsey, to stand on the stage of the Quarry Theatre at West Yorkshire Playhouse and and hold the audience. On sell-out nights – and there are already several of those – it will mean performing to an audience of 750 full of expectation from the middle of an enormous stage. Sometimes on their own.

Did I mention these girls are 11 and 12 years old?

The pair will alternate in the role during the two month run of the show at the theatre in Leeds.

Either the enormity of the task hasn’t quite hit them, or these two are already, even at this tender age, consummate professionals because, as they chat excitedly on a sofa at a specially arranged photo shoot with the whole cast for the Yorkshire Post, they display no hint of nerves.

Indeed, I can’t really tell you what they said when I asked if they were apprehensive at the prospect of playing the lead in the Playhouse’s Christmas show, because they were essentially silently bemused at the idea. A look that passes between the pair of them seems to suggest that the idea of nerves is the sort of thing someone who was not in the profession might ask about.

Mind you, these precocious 11 and 12 year-olds are already seasoned performers.

Sophie has appeared in Les Miserables on a national tour and was also in the TV shows Unforgiven alongside Suranne Jones and Appropriate Adult, which starred Dominic West.

For Phoebe, this will be the second time she has played Annie – and she has appeared in a professional production of Dr Doolittle.

“It’s hard work but at the end of the day you want to make it a good performance for the audience,” is her poised response to a question. “You don’t do all those hours of rehearsal for no reason, you do it to make a great show and for people to get their money’s worth.

“You just want to go up there and be the best Annie you can be.”

Just to repeat, Pheobe is 11 years old.

For her part, Sophie is delighted to get the chance to act because she had been considering a life in ballet.

“I was thinking about that as a career, but you can only last doing that until you’re something like 20, then you have to stop. So I think acting is probably a better thing to do,” she says.

While the mature attitude and wise words are disarming, there are also flashes that reveal that Phoebe and Sophie, are still a pair of little girls.

They are pictured here at 3 Albion Place, in the centre of Leeds, with the other 34 young girls from around the county who have been cast to play the title characters’ fellow orphans.

On stage they will mainly be wearing the rags to which you grow accustomed when obliged to live a Hard Knock Life. For the purposes of the photo shoot we told the girls to glam it up and get out their party dresses.

The girls were cast when the West Yorkshire Playhouse put out an open call and the brilliant young director Nikolai Foster, a major talent who has already been at the helm of musical successes around the country, auditioned more than 400 hopefuls from around the region.

After the photoshoot, Nikolai says both Phoebe and Sophie were obvious choices to play the title role of little orphan Annie.

Sophie and Phoebe had had no such certainty that things were destined to go their way .

Sophie says: “I had done about four... or was it three (at this point there is a lengthy break while Sophie and Phoebe discuss how many auditions there were and what they had to do at each one). “Anyway, we got to the last one and they were going down the line telling each girl what part they were playing and they told us we were playing Annie and I was like, ‘oh my god’. It didn’t quite sink in. I just sort of stood there for a while.”

Phoebe is at the Stuart Stage School in Heckmondwike and Sophie is at the Horsforth-based Scala.

Despite putting in long rehearsal days when we meet, both are incredibly enthusiastic about the show, Phoebe saying that she ‘loves that the director Nik is letting me bring myself to the part’.

Sophie, rather sweetly, adds, ‘I don’t mind the long days because I’m really enjoying meeting a whole new group of friends that I’m making’.

I make a final shot at trying to find any hint of nerves.

The last word goes to Phoebe (having met her professionally, one suspects it will not be for last time).

“It’s quite an emotional thing to do, but no I’m not nervous. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

The photoshoot was held at 3 Albion Place, a Grade II listed conference venue and home to private members’ club LS1.

Annie is at West Yorkshire Playhouse Nov 21 to Jan 21. Tickets 0113 2137700.

... and meet the entire cast

Melinda Trott, 8, from Leeds, plays an orphan: “I saw an advert for Annie in a newspaper and applied. We do some really good dance moves and everybody here is a really good singer. I’m one of the youngest and if I ever get stuck with anything the big ones help me out.”

Beth Tetley, 9, from Beeston, Molly: “I enjoy playing Molly because she gets pushed out of the bed by Pepper in one scene and I get to do some dramatic acting. She’s the character I always wanted to play when I watched the film. ”

Erin Chapman, 10, from Leeds, orphan: “I go to a stage school. I already knew the songs from Annie because I’d seen it in Harrogate. Both versions were enjoyable but I like this one a lot because I know many of the other girls here.”

Brooke Hirst, 9, from Wortley, Kate: I did get nervous about this audition because it’s a big audience. It was very exciting when I first came in for rehearsals. My teacher from my dance school puts me forward for a lot of things and she put me forward for this. I think this is the best thing that I’ve been put forward for so far.”

Bethany Hare, 12, from Beeston, orphan: “I really like performing in front of an audience and when you go out and give it your all, the hard work pays off. We had three auditions. In the first we sang, in the second one we danced and then we acted. I prefer acting and dancing.”

Francesca Keane aged 10 from Leeds, orphan: “I’ve done three pantomimes before but this is the best thing I’ve done so far. The orphan I play is called July. A couple of times in rehearsals the beds have broken. Pepper and Annie’s bed have collapsed. When I was about two a dog bit me so I’m a little bit scared of the dogs in the performance.”

Sophie Downham - Annie: See main interview.

Phoebe Roberts - Annie: See main interview.

Kiera Leaper, 13, from York, orphan: “I like the fun of being in a production and how we’re all working with our friends and acting our age. We don’t have to act older or younger in Annie. I go to Scala performing arts school and I found out about the Annie auditions from there. I didn’t expect to get in. ”

Eleanor Hemingway, 11, from Pudsey, Tessie: “I’ve done shows at stage school before and I’ve been in a pantomime and I’ve been in a performance of Never Forget before. Some flyers got sent through to our stage school about the Annie auditions and I thought I might as well go for it. When I’m older I want to do singing, dancing and acting. I just want to do everything.”

Hannah Kilcoyne, 13, from Oxenhope, Pepper: “I was really grateful to get in Annie as it’s an experience that really excites me. My mum’s American, which made getting into the whole accent thing easier. Playing Pepper is great. She’s such a vicious character who attacks everyone so sometimes you need to remember who you actually are! I love being on stage because you get an immediate reaction from the audience.”

Emily Sinker, 13, from Leeds, orphan: “My sister brought a leaflet home from school about the audition and we auditioned together with one of my other friends but I was the only one to get through. I think the others are a bit jealous but my sister is still going to come.”

Jody Townend, 11, from Huddersfield: “It’s a really good feeling when you’re on stage it makes you feel really free. You can be more free on stage than at school or at home. I like acting, dancing and singing but if I had to choose I’d probably choose acting. Today in rehearsals me and Emily were at the sewing machines singing and we kept on singing after everyone else had stopped, it was really embarrassing. We tried to make out that it wasn’t us. ”

Hollie Smith, 10, from Oakworth, orphan: “I began performing when I was three and was told about Annie by my dancing teacher in Oxenhope. I always wanted to be in Annie because it’s a really good film and whenever I’ve watched it in the past with my mum I’ve always been able to see myself in it.”

Ruth Kelner, 11, from Wakefield, Tessie: “I was in A Christmas Carol last year and saw the auditions for Annie advertised on a leaflet. I like the song You’re Never Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile and also the part at the beginning where Molly wakes up in the middle of the night screaming. It’s very dramatic.”

Zaccaia Newman-Richards, 11, from Meanwood, orphan: “I prefer dancing because I’ve done it for a while, I think I started when I was three. Annie is a mixture between dancing and acting. We do a bit of tap dancing but we don’t use our tap shoes. There are five dogs in the production but I don’t mind them because my cousin has five dogs and a snake.”

Phoebe Tissiman, 12, from Garforth, orphan: “I’ve been in Annie before at Leeds Grand Theatre when I was around six or seven. I found out it through my cousin who was in The Wiz. His auntie found out that Annie was going to be the next production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and I went for it.”

Elin Gilbert, 13, from Leeds, July: “I got in Annie because my mum likes to Google! She was Googling something or other, came across it and asked me if I wanted to go for it. I take singing, dancing and acting lessons but I’ve never done anything professional or on this scale before.”

Charlotte Wallis, 16, from Leeds, Duffy: “We’re not allowed to touch the dogs that are in the performance because they’re meant to just go to Annie. But it’s hard because one of the dogs is my dog from home – he’s called Buddy.”

Millie Archer, 10, from Leeds, Molly: “I really like singing and dancing but when I’m older I want to be an actress. In hard knock life I get pushed along in a basket but we didn’t have a basket in rehearsals today so Eleanor and Harriet who plays Pepper just picked me up and pulled me along.”

Hollie-Ann Lowe, 15, from Leeds, orphan: “It’s such a friendly environment here because some of us know other girls from previous shows. You spend Christmas together and it’s lovely – you become like a little working family. I’m keen on doing some more academic stuff and I want to take my A levels. When I turn 18 I’m going to train a bit more and try out for some talent shows.”

Harriet Whitaker-Myers, 13, from Bingley, Pepper: “I’ve always wanted to do big performances like this. You look up to the adults and see the work they’re doing and you aspire to be like them. The main thing we have to do is to keep polishing the dances. You have to constantly be on the ball to make sure you know what move or what line is going to come next.”

Taiya Mae Bailey, 9, from Leeds, orphan: “This is my first time in a proper production. I think I will get bit nervous on the night but I think I’ll be okay and give it my all. Our music teacher George is really fun. He likes things to be done properly but on the other hand he can make us laugh a lot.”

Jamada Goodison, 10, from Leeds, orphan: “I auditioned for A Christmas Carol last year but I didn’t get through. I’ve never seen the movie Annie, but my favourite part of the musical is the Hard Knock Life dance.”

Etta Mukasa, 10, from Leeds, Kate: “I think the 1982 version of Annie is really good because of characters like Miss Hannigan and also because of its ending. Being in Annie seemed like a fun thing to do. It’s been really hard work because there were a lot of auditions and rehearsals on top of school work. It’s quite tiring but it will all be worth it in the end.”

Tendai Rinomhota, 13, from Roundhay, orphan: “I don’t really get nervous about performing, I get really excited. We were in groups for the audition and we were in front of about four people, I think it was the director and the choreographer and a couple of others but it was chilled, everyone was really nice. The choreographer doesn’t really get stressed with us, we usually pick things up quickly. My Mum heard about the auditions for Annie on the radio, probably Radio 3 because that’s all she listens to.”

Paige Tye, 11, from Leeds, orphan: “I really like being on stage but sometimes before an audition I’ll get really nervous. I started dance classes when I was about three and started competitions when I was a bit older. We travel to Manchester sometimes for competitions in all types of dance like tap, national ballet and modern.”

Grace Hadabora, 10, from Sheffield, Annie understudy/orphan:“This is my second Annie in a row! I already knew the script because I’d memorized it from doing previous shows. There have been some funny moments. I fell off the bed in one scene because there were loads of us stood on it.”

Grace Tattersall, 14, from Bradford, Duffy: I can see myself acting in the future – I’ve been in South Riding and Waterloo Road – but I prefer singing. My favourite songs are It’s A Hard Knock Life and Never Fully Dressed. I’m really into musical theatre and classical music – I’d love to be in Les Mis on the West End and sing the song On My Own.”

Olivia Midgley, 13, from Brighouse, orphan: “I was in Annie last year so I already knew the songs and acts. In rehearsals I’ve broken the bed, the sewing machine and a tray. When we were doing ‘It’s a hard knock life’ all of the bed panels fell off too. It gets very noisy!”

Lily Harris, 13, from Horsforth, orphan: “I like being with the cast and doing all the songs and making new friends. I like the whole experience of being in a professional show. We don’t use our tap shoes in the show. We wear army boots in the dances that I actually really like but we’re not allowed to keep them. I think I prefer dancing but I do like singing because it’s fun, dancing works you harder though.”

Gabriella Cummins, 12, from Roundhay, Ruby: “I haven’t done many big performances before. In rehearsals the beds have collapsed loads of times and the sewing machines have broken as well. Hopefully, nothing will break on the night.”

Gabrielle Johnson, 13, from Bradford, orphan: “Me and my twin sister Elise watch Annie a lot – we were going to go see it at the West Yorkshire Playhouse before we ended up auditioning and eventually getting in it. After school we want our own celebrity TV show when we’re older called ‘Time With The Twins’. Our teachers give us extra work but I think they understand if we miss a few lessons and I bet they secretly wish they had done what we’re doing.”

Elise Johnson, 13, from Bradford, orphan: “I’ve been in TV shows, films and adverts – my favourite being the world cup McDonalds advert with the England football team. I really like musical theatre because of the way dancing and singing lets you express your emotions through the character.”

Ellen Longworth, 13, from Malton, Annie understudy / orphan: “I get nervous just before I go on but when I’m actually on stage I feel like I’m at home. I used to get more nervous but now I’ve done more shows it is better. I’ve done about 10 other shows all together but not big ones like this. We do loads of dancing in Annie we all get quite hot and sweaty after it.”

Leah Sheldon, 11, from Bramley, orphan: “The hardest thing about the play is definitely learning all of the words for the songs – that takes a while. We learn the songs together and sometimes some of us forget the words. It’s about three weeks until the first show. I’m not nervous now but I think I’ll get butterflies on the day. I think you need to be nervous before you perform.”

Interviews: Francesca Done and Kane Fulton