THEATRE / Sights on a sure-fire hit: Annie Get Your Gun opens in Plymouth tonight. Mark Pappenheim witnessed the last-minute preparations

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IT IS Tuesday afternoon at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth - just four days short of opening night for a brand-new touring production of Irving Berlin's Wild West musical Annie Get Your Gun. From the outside, the building looks more like a demolition site than a working theatre. Just 10 years old, the theatre is already undergoing its first facelift and the front-of-house areas stand stripped back to their bare brick and concrete. Scaffolding scars the facade, while the foyers are a litter of rubble, wood-shavings, metal castings, loose wiring and half-fitted floorboards.

Backstage, preparations appear scarcely better ordered. According to the production schedule, this afternoon is set aside for Technical Rehearsal Act One. Full costume and wigs. Make-up as requested by designer. But there's no sign of either wigs or costumes - half the props are missing and half the sets still need painting. Yet strangely no one seems overly concerned. After all, as Irving Berlin himself told us: 'There's no business like showbusiness', and if Berlin could write that hit number, plus two more of Broadway's most sure-fire show-stoppers - 'You Can't Get A Man With A Gun' and 'Doin' What Comes Natur'lly' - within a single weekend, another three or four days should be plenty for this tried and tested team to get their show back on the road.

Berlin knew what he was talking about: 'There's no people like show people,' he also wrote. 'They smile when they are low.' And sure enough there is Norman Rossington (the old stager who gets the show's opening number 'Colonel Buffalo Bill') restlessly pacing the stalls - 'Waiting to perform, dear boy,' he booms across in his most actorly manner. 'Just show me the stage, name the play and push me on. And if, by any chance, you could see your way to cashing a small cheque . . .'

Even Ronnie Lee, the producer, seems to be seeing the funny side of the latest delay: Hassan, Buffalo Bill's horse, was due for a special run-through at 2pm. But while the horse is ready and waiting in the wings, there's apparently some problem with his saddle. Roger Redfarn, the show's director and artistic director of the Theatre Royal, decides to cut the horse business and go straight into the rehearsal proper.

Annie Get Your Gun is the Theatre Royal's third co-production with Ronnie Lee and Redfarn has directed both previous runs: South Pacific (which went on a national tour, into the West End and on to Japan) and Brigadoon (which had a straight West End transfer). Under his aegis, the theatre has made something of a speciality of big musicals. It's a policy dictated as much by the nature of the theatre as by artistic considerations or audience preferences (although both play a significant part).

Built specifically to receive the big touring opera and dance companies, the Theatre Royal is very much a lyric house, with a large open stage and wide, sweeping auditorium. At the same time, it is also fully equipped as a producing house, with its own construction workshops and wardrobe. 'In a way, it's a headache,' Redfarn observes. 'You can't put simple three-handers in that big space. You have to keep filling the stage with scenery and actors, both of which cost a lot of money.'

One way of spreading those costs is to look for co-productions with commercial managements - which is where musicals come in. 'I wish we were doing more co- productions of classical drama,' Redfarn comments ruefully, 'but how many commercial managements are doing Shakespeare or Restoration comedy or new plays?'

Annie Get Your Gun boasts a cast of 40, a full orchestra (with original orchestrations). But what about the production's moral values? The old tunes may be best, but the old ways often leave a lot to be desired, and Annie Get Your Gun, with its homespun tale of a quick-witted, sharp-shooting backwoods gal who finally gets her man only by sprucing herself up, selling herself short and playing the little lady, seems about as post-feminist as a chief constable's appointments committee. And that's not to mention the show's double-barrelled salute to the cult of the firearm or its clear racist attitude towards North America's native population ('Just like Rising Moon, Falling Pants, Running Nose, like those Indians, I'm an Indian too').

So how does the show's star cope with its PC rating? 'Ooh, the hot potato thing,' exclaims Kim Criswell, the self-styled 'Chattanooga-born belter' who is here making her UK stage debut as Annie (a role she's already recorded to great acclaim for EMI) fresh from Broadway successes in 9 (opposite Raul Julia) and The Threepenny Opera (opposite Sting). 'People have to realise it's a period piece,' Criswell continues. 'We're not trying to represent 1992 - we're trying to represent 1892, or '82, or whatever it was. In that day, women behaved in a certain way and men behaved a different way, and it wasn't considered sexist for them not to be in competition.'

In fact the true story on which Annie is based - in which the real-life Annie Oakley was indeed the better shot, a fact conceded by her defeated rival, Frank Butler, when he retired from the stage shortly after their marriage to manage the next 50 years of his wife's career - was so proudly proto-feminist that it had to be turned on its head to make it the stuff of a successful mid-20th-century musical comedy.

It is perhaps significant that, for the 1966 New York revival, Irving Berlin himself added a new number, 'An Old-Fashioned Wedding', which contrasts Frank's traditional ideal of marriage ('I'll vow to love you for ever. You'll vow to love, honour and obey') with Annie's more advanced attitudes ('Love and honour, yes, but not obey'). As Roger Redfarn observes: 'Annie gives as good as she gets, and ends up getting exactly what she wants.'

As for the Indians, 'God knows, the Indian situation in the States is one of the, if not the, most embarrassing and horrible and unjust things that ever happened,' admits Criswell, 'but that's not really what this piece is about. It's not about the American Indians being stripped of their land, it's about showbusiness in the Wild West.' Nevertheless, some of the more offensive language has been cut - 'references to 'Redskins' and stuff like that' - and efforts have been made to raise (or, rather, lower) the Indians to the same level as everyone else on stage. 'In the original,' says Redfarn, 'all the bums who hang around and get into trouble are Indians. We've made them into theatre people - theatre folk are all bums, after all.'

Beyond that, no one is too worried about potential subtext-spotting. 'That's not what people have come to see,' Redfarn says, 'they come for the romance, the story, the sets and costumes, and some wonderful singing of great classic songs.'

Opens tonight at the Theatre Royal Plymouth (0752 267222), to 5 Sept. Then tours to Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow and London.

(Photograph omitted)