Review: Evita (Phoenix Theatre)

Emma Hatton stars in the lead role in this revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical

The steam roller effect of "Don’t Cry for Me Argentina" obliterates the rest of Evita. Yet this Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice bio-musical from 1978, telling the story of Argentina’s Eva Peron, is a fleet, robust, beautifully constructed show. It was their last collaboration and possibly their best.

One virtue of this revival is that it reminds you forcibly of that. Directed by Bob Tomson and producer Bill Kenwright, it has been knocking around, in one form or another, for almost a decade but it is still sharply energetic enough to convey the excitement of Lloyd Webber’s skilful match of South American forms and rhythms and Rice’s biting words.

True, there is still something slightly queasy about a musical that has as its heroine the wife of a man whose political opponents had a nasty habit of disappearing. But in fairness, the show is equivocal in its attitude towards her and President Peron, holding their ambitions in a questioning light – and, in doing so, radically altering the nature of what a musical could tackle. There’s a boldness to it, that I had forgotten.

It is much helped here by Matthew Wright’s simple set of arches and balconies and by a small but hard working cast who fill the Phoenix’s shallow stage with ceaseless and carefully observed energy whether embodying the high class socialites who resisted Eva’s popular appeal, or the bordello inhabitants who witness her rise from aspiring actress with a dubious romantic reputation to near saintly mother of the nation.

Emma Hatton charts this journey superbly. From the moment she appears – all flashing eyes and wanton ambition – she creates a character full of life and subtlety, rejecting the big effect for a smaller and more detailed reading of Evita’s character. Her voice is sweet, with an attractive catch, and she does the big numbers the credit of singing them with meaning, making each word count. In her final scenes with Peron (Kevin Stephen Jones, finding an effective mix of tenderness and swagger) she is very moving, as the realisation of death dawns upon her. Her ultimate "Lament" is a quietly sung epitaph, which brings the show to a powerfully downbeat conclusion.

The weak link, unfortunately, is Gian Marco Schiaretti’s Che, who as commentator on the action is the man who holds the story together, looking forward and back. He’s a handsome chap (though surely too muscular around the shoulders for a revolutionary leader) with an appealing light voice, but it’s a performance that misses the importance of Che’s analysis of events, his knowledge of their significance in Argentina’s troubled development. It’s all pose and not enough passion – though the reverse is true of this revival as a whole.

Evita runs at the Phoenix Theatre until 14 October.

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