Jamie Lloyd really has the golden touch at the moment and he’s not a director afraid to make a bold statement, in fact they are a trademark. The decision to dedicate a 6-month season to the lesser-known works of Harold Pinter was a huge commercial gamble on a playwright who was not exactly out of fashion but whose writing remains a challenge however much theatre you see. But it was a gamble that paid off, winning over audiences night after night for seven curated collections that proved a revelatory re-examination of Pinter’s variety and legacy culminating in a beautiful and hugely acclaimed revival of Betrayal starring Tom Hiddleston which transfers to Broadway next week.
Hot on the heels of that announcement came the news of a second theatre season from November at the Playhouse Theatre opening with Cyrano de Bergerac starring James McAvoy, followed by a series of yet-to-be-announced productions running until August 2020. Before all of that eyes turn to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre where Lloyd’s interpretation of Evita faces the press on Thursday. Although still in preview, the production is already astounding; daring and brilliant, a full audience standing ovation on its first weekend proving that Jamie Lloyd has serious momentum right now.
It’s also been an amazing year for Andrew Lloyd Webber with impressive revivals of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar (also an Open Air Theatre production) appearing alongside West End stalwarts The Phantom of the Opera and School of Rock. This revival of Evita makes five musicals running concurrently. It’s not an obvious step for Lloyd, but with a portfolio full of edgier approaches to classic texts, the choice of a 1970s musical beloved of theatrical divas turns out to be a very shrewd one.
Of all of Lloyd Webber’s musicals, Evita (written with Tim Rice) is the most overtly political, unpicking the cult of Eva Peron and rise to power of her Argentinian dictator husband during the late 1940s as the right-wing government balances the power of English oligarchs, growing military control and the demands of the working classes. It has that rare thing in any kind of theatre, a female lead whose narrative is not driving a romantic love story and happy ending. Instead Evita looks at Eva’s determination to escape her lowly origins by using her connection to the people to become the first lady of Argentina, and during the show she demands the chance to tell and mythologise her own story.
Lloyd’s approach is always consistent, strip away the history of performance, forget how shows have been staged before and get to the underlying truth of the story. Notably, Evita is as much a political warning as it is a biographical drama, and Lloyd’s version amplifies the dangers of too readily believing public narratives. So, the way in which Eva manufactures and then commercialises her own history does as much to keep Peron in power as his military junta.
What we see on the surface – the widespread distribution of charitable goods, building bridges with the unions and a glamorous tour of European leaders – belies the corruption beneath. Examining the motivations of political leaders who claim to act in the name of “the people” but really have only self-interest at heart, and dispelling the myths that those in power weave lies at the heart of Evita, making Lloyd’s revival as much a contemporary warning as a 1940s lesson in history.
Designer Soutra Gilmour clears the stage of unnecessary window dressing leaving only plain terraced steps with the show’s title in rusted Argentinian blue and white at the top concealing the orchestra. There is a deceptive simplicity to the staging created to emphasise Eva’s insistence on her own humble origins. The setting, like her early life, is devoid of frills, bare and straightforward in which Lloyd quietly introduces a concept of class in which certain groups occupy the upper regions of the stage depending on their societal influence. The same is true of Eva’s costume, a simple white slip rather than the enormous gowns of previous productions which psychologically attest to her belief that beneath the Dior dresses she’s still that impoverished urchin from the sticks.
But all is not what it seems because Gilmour, lighting designer Jon Clark and Lloyd know exactly when and how to unleash cavalcades of activity at crucial moments creating quite the spectacle. In the very first line of the show, Che Guevara sings’ “Oh what a circus” and this has been Gilmour’s inspiration – applied with a fairly light touch – along with the riots and victorious parades peppered throughout the story. No Lloyd production is complete without plenty of ticker tape, and here torrents of the stuff is unleashed, along with enough smoke effects to almost obscure the stage and front rows, projectile streamers and plenty of balloons all in the strict pale blue and white colour scheme of this South American nation.
What Lloyd does so well is to so carefully balance these explosions of public sentiment with the show’s more comedic elements and the emotional centre of the piece, the result of which is a first-rate piece of theatre. The visible outpouring of grief following Eva’s funeral where the story begins, are matched by the elation of Peron’s flag-waving victory during ‘A New Argentina’ just before the interval and the frantic enthusiasm of ‘And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)’. But as we saw with the Pinter series, Lloyd pitches the emotive moments with tenderness whether it’s the melancholic resignation of Peron’s dejected mistress in ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’ or Eva’s own health struggles later in the show (‘You Must Love Me’), Lloyd clears the stage, focusing intently on the real feeling behind the bombast, the humanity amidst all this political posturing.
Musicals endure a lot of undeserved derision, but Evita is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most arresting scores, full of heavy funereal brass for the Requiem sections, jazzy swing and showstopping solos that quiver with feeling. With the kind of visionary thinking that he is known for, Lloyd has contemporised this show entirely, working with Musical Supervisor Alan Williams to give the songs a modern feel, most notably incorporating tango and salsa rhythms that bring freshness to the songs. These are beautifully performed by the orchestra, particularly during the intensity and pomp of the big numbers which feel vivid and energised.
Fabian Aloise’s hugely accomplished choreography is just a joy to watch, modern, fluid, dynamic and full of storytelling using a relatively small ensemble that represent the working classes, English aristocratic colonists and Peron’s stylised army. Every one of the set-piece moments has been carefully constructed and staged with flair so that many of the big numbers will stick in your mind as those terraced steps light-up and offer opportunities for movement at contrasting levels across the stage.
But Alosie’s work is also full of small moments that create such a wonderful and satisfactory variety of steps and movements throughout, not least in the first act where ‘Goodnight and Thank You’ and ‘Art of the Possible’ give large balloons to Eva’s lovers and Peron’s rivals as they are picked off one by one, while Act Two offers some inspired approaches to ‘High Flying Adored’ and the spray-can filled ‘Rainbow High.’ All of this echoes the grittier, more urban choreographic choices made for Jesus Christ Superstar in 2016 and currently on lone to the Barbican.
Making her UK debut, Samantha Pauly is superb as Evita with the kind of rock voice that brings a different feel to these classic musical theatre songs, delivering the lyrics in more unusual ways. A surface rags to riches story, Pauly plays Eva with a cheeky confidence as she uses her charms to lure Magaldi and break into the Buenos Aires performance scene. But Eva Peron was no Cinderella, and Pauly brings a valuable ambiguity to the role reinforcing the shows central debate about the manipulation of the public image.
This is a woman who refuses to let anyone else tell her story, so Eva and Che indulge in a battle for control of the narrative fought over the possession of hand-held microphones as her star rises. Pauly’s creation is a bundle of so many things, arrogance, determination, spitefulness, revolutionary fervour, comedic timing and sexual confidence as well as a discerning political mind supporting the workers but propping-up a fascist regime, never letting the audience entirely sympathise or detest her. ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ is always a showstopper and here too Pauly makes it her own, a moment of wistful stillness in a frantic scramble for power, matched by the eventual fragility Pauly reveals as the vulnerable Evita reaches her conclusion.
Pauly has great chemistry with Puerto Rican actor Ektor Rivera who plays Juan Peron, almost happily pushed into the background by his wife’s star power, but they make a very handsome couple, easy to believe their youthful glamour would be attractive to the electorate. Trent Saunders is excellent as the disaffected Che Guevara as repulsed by Evita’s social climbing and political regime as he is attracted by the personal charisma and resolve that infect him. While Che’s influence fades as the show unfolds, Saunders’s sardonic quality and strong vocals makes this a compelling battle of wills between the leads.
Lloyd has gathered an effortlessly diverse cast for the secondary roles and a hard-working Ensemble that fill the stage with energy in some excellent dance numbers. There’s also a notable performance by Frances Mayli McCann as Peron’s Mistress – the only other woman in the show to warrant her own song – delivering ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’ with a quiet despair in another of those moment’s when we pause to take stock, thinking about the easy disposability of women in this world and how hard Eva had to fight to rise above them all.
What you want from a Jamie Lloyd production is a sense of contemporary resonance, a focus on the emotional and truthful centre of a show, and to be surprised by endlessly inventive staging – Evita offers all of this in spades. The result is a production that delivers on the big moments with style but is off-set by the complex and intimate journey through the competing faces of Eva Peron – the lowly descamisado, the predatory social climber, the mother-figure, greedy dictator’s wife and the saintly Evita – a complicated, rounded, powerful and fascinating woman who burned brightly for a time. With plenty to say about the shallow foundations of political leaders hiding behind their PR machines, Jamie Lloyd’s triumphant Evita is raw, fresh and intense – “oh what a show!”