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Evita

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice
William Village and Timothy Sheader for Regent’s Park Theatre Ltd
Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
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Jamie Lloyd’s production of Lloyd Webber’s richly operatic Evita is both stripped back and theatrically extravagant. Soutra Gilmour provides a setting of bare grey bleachers with the orchestra on the top level screened by a huge distressed signage EVITA but there are explosions of smoke, flares, bursts of flame and showers of huge grey confetti.

It is a grey world with everyone in black at the opening as Samantha Pauly crawls onto the stage for the opening “Requiem”. She is a frail-looking Evita but a calculating tough cookie which is strikingly emphasised when, as she appears for the crowds adoration, instead of the glamorous gown and jewels they see we are presented with a woman stripped down to her underwear, revealing the true Evita; only in her final apotheosis does she don that dress and instead of the raven hair that goes with reality becomes the coiffured blonde of her publicity.

Pauly doesn’t play Eva for sympathy and we see her through the eyes of Che Guevara (a charismatic Trent Saunders). He is there even before the show starts and, though the Peronistas may beat him up, goes on competing with Eva for control of the microphone.

This is a production that emphasises the brutality of Perón’s power and the starkness of the staging sharpens the effect of the symbolic action with which Lloyd adds emphasis: the bursting of balloons as Ektor Rivera’s Juan Perón removes opposition, the couple erotically dancing behind them as Eva and Juan slowly approach each other from opposite ends of a bleacher marking their developing relationship, the graphic humiliation of Che, the teacup-holding society ladies frowning on Eva the upstart.

Though its duplicitous populist politics seem all too topical, this isn’t just a message show—it's full of some of Lloyd Webber’s best music and with its swelling themes and great tunes it delivers and the songs clearly sung, except for Pauly’s highest range, and Tim Rice’s lyrics strike home. Although the three leads are (with Equity’s blessing) American visitors, this sounds like a British not an American musical.

The bleacher set with no big flat space to dance in would be a challenge to any choreographer but Fabian Aloise does a fantastic job in devising some thrilling dance in a show to which movement provides the visual spectacle. The company negotiate those shallow multiple surfaces as though they were a flat stage, every dancer delivers.

Perhaps Lloyd overdoes the smoke and confetti cannons, but then that excess is kind of appropriate and adds audience involvement and the power of this production couldn’t be better illustrated than on press night when, as Evita’s life began to draw to a close, it started raining. The audience stayed, no one leaving, as though accepting that as one more piece of theatre. The Open Air Theatre has another great success.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton