The Manchester Stage Experience is a two-week project offering young actors, singers, dancers and musicians the chance to work in a professional theatre. Impressively the production standards of their latest work Annie are high enough to shame many professional companies. Only some difficulty balancing the sound levels and the occasional flat Lancashire vowel betrays the nature of the company.

Irene Caldwell's costumes use a limited budget to stunning effect; dressing the vast household staff of the Warbucks mansion in colour-coded uniform. The fairy-tale feel of New York is conveyed as visitors stepping off the bus are transformed into a glamorous chorus line.

Director David McNeill uses his massive ensemble (99 members and a dog!) with rare skill and imagination. Annie, the musical tale of a spunky orphan who melts the heart of isolated billionaire Daddy Warbucks, although aimed at young audiences, has a rather grim undertone. McNeill does not dodge the context of the play being set in the Great Depression but uses the full cast to create a crowded shantytown reminiscent of Gotham City. This serves as a contrast to the bulging mansion staff and gives an idea of the opulence of the Warbucks household. The poverty spills off the stage with sooty orphans huddled in corners of the theatre and begging in the aisles.

But it's the passion and skill of the cast that makes the production so special. They achieve the demanding dance routines of chorographers Laura Meeson and Lauren Taylor with energy -- cartwheeling and high-stepping faultlessly across the stage. The characterisation is excellent. Edward Ashley has a whip-crack voice and his lean and hungry Warbucks shows the loneliness of carrying a heavy responsibility. James Hill's Rooster is a terrific pantomime villain. Miss Hannigan is essentially a comedic character but Shelbie Ashton brings a very human edge of desperation that contrasts with the gracious and understated charm of India Sleem's Grace.

The tearaway orphans, managing to belt out the songs while running riot and mocking poor Miss Hannigan, dominate the show. Emily Gardiner catches the strange mixture of stubbornness and compassion that makes Annie the natural leader of the bunch. As well as bags of charm, Gardiner has a lovely warm tone to her voice that makes the somewhat saccharine songs acceptable to even hardened cynics.

With Annie the Manchester Stage Experience offer a show that makes you believe the sun really might come out tomorrow.

  - Dave Cunningham