Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 22nd September, 2011
It won’t be easy – you’ll think it’s strange – when I try to explain how I feel… that I still like this show after all of these years.
It’s a funny one, Evita, by which I mean, peculiar. A biography of Argentina’s most famous woman distilled into a rags-to-riches story that follows the template of so many others. Perhaps its origins in real history set it apart from the Cinderella archetype – although modern versions of Cinderella-type stories tend to finish not with a happy-ever-after but with the destruction of the heroine, through excess, accident or, as in the case in point, illness. Think of The Rose and Breaking Glass, two films that came out around the time Evita was first produced.
The complexities of Argentine politics in the 1930s and 40s are sketchily presented and it behoves the audience to do the research (check the programme for useful crib notes) or not. You can let that wash over you and enjoy the dancing, which in this production is very sharp indeed.
The problem I always have is with the central character herself. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. To paraphrase a line from another Rice/Lloyd Webber collaboration, I don’t know how to love her. Clearly and irrefutably, she is presented as a manipulative slut, sleeping – one might say “beavering” – her way to the top. Cynical narration from omnipresent narrator, Che, puts us in no doubt of this. She is an unstoppable force, out to get what she wants. We are kept at a distance from our leading lady. The emotional weight of the first act comes in the form of “Another Suitcase In Another Hall”, delivered by Sasha Ransley as a young mistress turfed out of Peron’s house as soon as Eva gets her hooks into him. This always strikes me as a bit odd. One of the best songs in the piece is given to a very minor character. I suppose she provides a counterpoint to the callous conniving of Eva Duarte, and shows us what happens to girls like her who lack Eva’s drive (and opportunity) to get themselves out of the gutter. It does provide a moment of contrast from the montages charting Eva’s progression up the ranks, and elicits the first big response of the night from the audience.
I would have no problem with an entirely Brechtian production, along the lines of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui – the staging allows for it, the libretto cries out for it : “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” is a public relations exercise, after all – but at the end, when Evita finally dies, as we knew she would – we are invited to feel sorry for her. Indeed, the woman seated to my right was audibly sobbing. Perhaps it’s because in those final scenes when Eva is succumbing to cancer, the humanity of the character is at last revealed. She confronts her mortality and reminds us of our own. Yet I always find the gear-shift somewhat hard to manage. Her ghost drifts on stage and laments for the children she never had but then we are returned to the cynicism of the funeral scenes that opened the show. A media circus. In a post-Princess Diana world, we recognise the “falling over ourselves to get all of the misery right” and the quasi-apotheosis of a nation’s darling. For all of her high-profile charity works, Eva Peron was no saint (as far as this show asserts, at any rate). This is also familiar. My perception of the show has changed since it first appeared because the world and I have changed, but what else does the show have to tell us today?
Peron’s election promises appear very attractive, seeking to improve the lot of the poor and the working class – the direct opposite of that which our current evil regime is dishing out to us. Of course, Peron couldn’t and/or didn’t deliver on those promises when in power – which is also all too familiar.
Abigail Jaye gives us a feisty Eva, perhaps a little shrill at the top of the show, but powerfully expressing the determination and also the vulnerability of the woman. Mark Powell’s Che was a little too laid back for my liking – no fire in his belly until the embittered waltz-time duet he shares with Eva in the second act. The chorus is energetic and precise, as snooty aristocrats and peevish soldiers , making the production numbers very enjoyable. The set – rounded arches, pillars and wrought iron staircases – is flexible enough to represent a variety of locations, emblematically rather than naturalistically. The colourful costumes suggest the period and the company is fleshed out in crowd scenes by a troupe of local volunteers, a device that works very well.
I don’t think I’ll ever hear an Eva sung with the cold precision of the peerless Julie Covington on the original album release, and I always approach the stage show fully aware of that. What I do hope for is further enlightenment on an undoubtedly fascinating figure from history (I should just read a book, shouldn’t I?) and on why I like the show. Perhaps it’s because it was written back in a time before Lloyd Webber forgot it is acceptable to have more than two decent tunes in a show.