Annie comes to the Civic

By Claire McCall

Claire McCall talks to an Auckland teen about her starring role as orphan Annie.

Annie in triplicate, Amelia Walshe, Zoe Fifield and Ilena Shadbolt. Photo / Hagen Hopkins
Annie in triplicate, Amelia Walshe, Zoe Fifield and Ilena Shadbolt. Photo / Hagen Hopkins

Zoe Fifield has packed a lot of living into her 13 years. With all her certificates and awards, there can't be much space left on her bedroom wall in the Whangaparaoa home she shares with her mum and dad, an older and younger brother, two dogs and her horse, Princess.

Zoe is one of three local children who'll play red-headed orphan Annie in the stage show set to hit the Civic next week. Wellingtonians Amelia Walshe and Ilena Shadbolt are her alternate Annies. The three beat out 630 other hopefuls to get the job, but Zoe has already earned her stripes with performances in Christmas in the Park and The Wizard of Oz. Offstage, she's an A-grade student at Rangitoto College, has played rep football and competed in cross-country horse-riding events. So when she says, "I don't like choosing; I like to fit it all in," you believe her.

The past four weeks have been particularly busy. Zoe and her mum, Lesley, decamped to Wellington to rehearse with her fellow orphans and the stellar British cast. At their first meeting, the Kiwi kids welcomed the West End theatre stalwarts with a rendition of Haere Mai.

"We didn't know if they would talk to us, but they're all really nice," says Zoe. "Su Pollard is hilarious." On opening night, the adults of the cast gave each girl a good-luck card. Zoe, who was not performing that evening, led the standing ovation for her fellow Annie.

The idea to bring Annie on tour to New Zealand was hatched by James Cundall, founder of UK-based Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, while he was walking along Karekare beach. Those positive ions must have done their job. Not many international theatre companies are still willing to take the financial risk of exporting such a show to our shores.

While the UK contingent rehearsed in London, the Kiwi crew - all girls aged 8-13 - learned the sequences some 18,000km away. "Choreography was done by Skype and WhatsApp. Music files were sent by Dropbox," explains director Alan Cohen. The show had one fortnight to gel, only two weeks when both sides trod the same floorboards.

It was Cohen's task to bring a modern point of view to a production that had its naissance in the 1970s. Set in New York in the Depression, the story is billed as a timeless tale of hope and positivity. "Yet audience expectations have changed, so part of my job was to give the original version more spectacle - to take out any 'dead' moments and make the narrative flow more dynamic."

After working with Cohen and associate director Jonny Bowles (both from Glasgow), the orphans now understand Scottish. Zoe laughs at their accents, but quickly learned phrases such as "haud yer wheest" - quiet! Of course, picking up the inflection and twang of language is part of her metier. She turns on a New York drawl at the drop of a hat.

For Zoe, the hardest part was not learning her lines, which she tends to read just before bed or at her brother's touch rugby practice. Nor was it battling with show nerves - "I feel excited and can't wait to go on." What she finds tricky is memorising the "blocking", the precise onstage positioning and movement, particularly with such a large troupe.

The long days she has put in to master her moves will no doubt mean the rest of the season runs as smoothly as on opening night in Wellington. From the first scene where the girls sing of their hard-knock life at the NYC orphanage to the show-stopping finale, only the most jaded audience member won't feel a small thrill of patriotic pride as the Kiwi youngsters are by no means overshadowed by the professionals.

"The girls are all tired and they've learned the business is not very glamorous but if they're passionate about theatre, I'd encourage them to make it their destiny. No matter what, this experience will be life-changing," says Alan Cohen.

Although Zoe has big plans, she also has her feet firmly on the ground. Far from considering herself a star, she can't wait to buy the merchandise - an Annie locket and T-shirt. When asked to choose her favourite experience from the show, she reverts to being your typical young teenager. "I love the dog; he's so cute," she says of her canine co-star.

"It's my dream to do stuff in musical theatre, but if that doesn't happen, I want to be a vet."

Annie the Musical has a limited season in Auckland at the Civic from June 13 to July 6: anniethemusical.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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