Musical: Preserved in syrup for all our tomorrows

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KATHLEEN TURNER must have died of pleasure when the script of Serial Mom plopped through her letterbox. I mean, how often do you get to play an immaculately coiffured, suburban mother who clubs a neighbour to death with a leg of lamb while she's watching a video of Annie?

With its cast of orphaned children, a lost dog and a stern billionaire with a heart of gold, Annie is almost the last word in slickly engineered sentimentality. I say "almost" because this monster hit spawned a sequel which encouraged one critic to remark that its creators could "now get on with the rest of their lives". Wrong. Its lyricist and director Martin Charnin is still at the helm for this twenty-first anniversary production.

It's all too easy to point to the show's deficiencies. Charles Strouse's score is only a notch above efficient, Charnin's lyrics are merely proficient, and the book is a charm offensive of quite astounding predictability. Yet the point about Annie is that it works.

Annie isn't a show, it's a pension fund. This musical has grossed $400m so it's hardly surprising that everyone wants to write one, but a glance at the tower of duds from people who should know better proves that manufacturing a hit of this scale is no mean feat.

The secret of its success is that it doesn't try to be more sophisticated and knowing than its sugary, no, positively hypoglycaemic storyline. The nearest it gets to grown-up humour is the underlining of a joke from the Republican hero about what Democrats like to eat, raising a laugh from adults au fait with President Clinton's domestic arrangements.

Almost admirably, this is the show with no shame, its creators thinking nothing of making a song and dance about homelessness in the 1930s Depression.

It's all part of a superbly executed plan to make a bee-line for the tear-ducts at every opportunity. Even those who sympathised with Robert Helpmann's gloriously malevolent Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang cannot help but capitulate to the mush of melting hearts as Annie finds true happiness.

You may criticise the mechanical manipulation of the direction, but it's impossible not to warm to the genuine pleasure of the children who dance up a storm, or six-year-old Chloe Watson as the smallest orphan who, beaming with innocent happiness, is clearly having the time of her life. Kevin Colson is astonishingly good as the gruff billionaire. He lends true weight and gravitas to his caricature of a role and walks away with the show. Lesley Joseph is never quite nasty enough as the wicked and potentially show-stealing orphanage matron but she lets rip in the big number, "Easy Street". This may be because she's opposite her villainous brother, played by Andrew Kennedy, who is seriously in love with his performance. I wish I could say the same.

The hot news is that when Joseph leaves, she'll be replaced by Lily Savage. Even I might return for that.