MISS Hannigan is the villain children love to hate. She’s bitter, spiteful and has no time for kids, despite being in charge of an orphanage full of them. She’s a scheming con artist, no stranger to the gin bottle, and will prey on anyone to make a fast buck.

But, says Anita Dobson, who has stepped into Miss Hannigan’s shoes in much-loved family show Annie, at the Alhambra next week, she's not a total monster.

“She’s frustrated, she’s been dealt a rough hand in life. Remember, this is a story set in the Great Depression, when life was very tough for many Americans,” says Anita. “She takes it all out on the children.

“I love playing her because she’s so funny. Children love to laugh."

The lively musical, inspired by Harold Gray’s newspaper cartoon strip Little Orphan Annie, is the charming tale of a plucky girl living in a grim downtown orphanage in 1930s New York who never gives up hope of finding her parents. Annie’s luck changes when billionaire businessman Daddy Warbucks takes her under his wing, and invites her to spend a fairytale Christmas at his mansion. But Miss Hannigan has other ideas and hatches a heartless plan to ruin Annie’s search for her family.

With a young cast and songs such as It’s the Hard Knock Life, Easy Street and Tomorrow, Anita says it’s a perfect introduction to theatre for youngsters. “We have wonderful young performers who love being in the show, they’re great to be around,” she says. "Annie is a great story for children, because what comes out of it is hope. Here is this little girl whose optimism shines through, she's had it tough but finally reaches somewhere she can call home."

Anita has been a patron of Stage 84 since youngsters from the Idle theatre school appeared with her in a TV drama, and she's a firm believer in good training. “You have to support any child with a dream, and it’s important that they have a proper place to train,” she says. “Drama is good for all kinds of things, not least confidence and social skills.

“I cut my teeth in theatre; I plodded along doing stints in rep - that was my apprenticeship. Repertory theatre was fabulous training because you got chance to do a bit of everything.”

Anita shot to fame in EastEnders as Angie Watts, legendary landlady of the Queen Vic, who held court behind the bar; her painted-on smile masking a fragile soul. Anita made such a lasting impression, it's easy to forget she was only in the show for three years. In 1988, she waved goodbye to Walford and resisted offers to return.

There's a tendency for actors to be dismissive of the role that gave them a break, especially if, like Anita, they have an impressive body of work beyond that. But she's refreshingly fond of Angie. "She changed my life. I'm so proud of her," says Anita. "The BBC had never had a soap before, none of us knew what to expect. I loved playing Angie, she was from that fantastic tradition of strong soap women. But I became an actor to try different things. I love radio, film and TV, but it's really important to me to go back to theatre - it sharpens your timing."

Variety has been the spice of Anita's career, with TV credits including New Tricks, Red Dwarf, Split Ends, Sunburn, Hotel Babylon and The Last Detective. Her theatre work spans Shakespeare and musical theatre, with shows such as Hello Dolly, Guys and Dolls, Chicago, Hamlet, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Frozen, for which she was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Actress. "What it comes down to is a good story," says Anita. "That's the bricks and mortar."

Married to Queen guitarist Brian May, Anita took a recent break to attend the Oscars, where Rami Malek won Best Actor for playing Freddie Mercury in smash hit biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. "Being at the Oscars was like a dream," says Anita. "At first I thought I couldn't go, because of Annie, then I realised it was during my week off! What a wonderful week it was."

* Annie is at the Alhambra from Monday to Saturday. Call (01274) 432000.