For all its world-beating success, Evita is a musical that it is easier to admire than to like. It's a chilly look at a woman who is corrupt as well as charismatic and married to a dictator. And it's Donald Trump's favourite musical, apparently.
Director Jamie Lloyd has tackled these problems head-on. His radical staging at the Open Air Theatre strips away all the glamour and passion that characterised Hal Prince's original version and, in a faded model, has adhered to most productions since. He – with one striking exception – chucks out the ballgowns and the wigs and keeps the staging simple. What he is left with is the hard sinew and bone of Andrew Lloyd Webber's full-blooded music – arguably his best score – and Tim Rice's sharp, politically astute lyrics. It's an effective approach, though not necessarily one that will delight fans who loved Elaine Paige (Britain's original Evita) and see "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" as a great power ballad.
You can tell it's going to be different from the start, when Samantha Pauly's Eva Peron starts to crawl up the steps to her own funeral. Dressed simply in a white slip and sneakers, with her raven hair tumbling over her shoulders, she looks more like a disco dancer than the woman who became the power behind the throne in Argentina; she looks nothing like any Evita has done before.
Soutra Gilmour's setting is similarly radical. The excellent band are at the top of the stage, behind great distressed steel letters spelling out Evita; in front of them, a staircase with deep steps. When Trent Saunders as Che leads out the mourners, they sit in dark coats, putting their heads in their hands in exaggerated gestures of grief. There is no scenery as such. All the effects come from the configuration of that chorus (in the brilliant hands of choreographer Fabian Aloise who moves them around the stage in raw, punchy routines), quick changes of clothes and a leitmotif of balloons that burst in the hands of the holder when they are shot, disappointed or dismissed.
And because we are outside, Lloyd and his team employ pyrotechnics: canons that shoot paper and streamers across the audience as the Perons gain power, great torrents of smoke pouring from canisters in the hands of their supporters. Flames burst from the side of the stage. When Eva goes on her 'rainbow tour' – her white slip now made of silk – the 'designers' who surround her paint her with spray cans.
Over and over again, this is a production that surprises, and nowhere more so than in its conception of the leading trio of characters, all played by actors imported from over the Atlantic. Pauly handles the big numbers with confidence, but the most interesting things about her performance are round the edges: the way she stands absolutely still as she tells Peron (Ektor Rivera, making the role more expressive and shaded than usual) that she would be surprisingly good for him; the wink she gives Che as she achieves her ambition; the look of sad recognition she bestows on Peron's former mistress as she leaves. (Singing "Another Suitcase, Another Hall" – a song Frances Mayli McCann nails beautifully.)
As the mood darkens, and the sky turns black (and on press night as it began to rain) she is touching in her suffering (the real Evita died of cancer at the age of 33), without ever softening the sense of naked ambition that has taken her to the top of a society that rejected her. Indeed the production suggests, interestingly, that both Che and Evita are defeated by the power struggles going on around them.
Trent Saunders makes Che, our guide to the show, not just cynical but furious. He constantly physically interposes himself into the action, coming between the Perons as they meet, singing "High Flying Adored" to Evita as if it is a love song. He ends the evening tarred and feathered in blue paint, still resisting the populists' appeal, another smart stroke in an evening that is full of them.