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STAGE REVIEW: The stairway to heaven

Stage performance of Evita at Regents Park Theatre. Photograph: Marc Brenner. - Credit: Archant

TIM WALKER reviews Evita at Regent’s Park Theatre and gives the performance five stars.

Stage performance of Evita at Regents Park Theatre. Photograph: Marc Brenner. – Credit: Archant

Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Evita is played out on a stage taken up entirely by a staircase that leads up to the rusting capital letters E, V, I, T and A. Striking, for sure, but at first glance I found myself fretting about practicalities. How on earth is this going to allow for location changes, and, on such a confining and vertiginous space, the big dance routines?

Of course, Lloyd and his designer Soutra Gilmour know exactly what they are doing. The staircase is a symbol of the ascent of a girl born into a poverty-stricken family in rural Argentina to power and glory as the wife of the country’s leader, Juan Perón. The staircase actually gives the production a big screen feel: the action is figuratively and physically played out on multiple levels.

Metal and concrete is something of a hallmark of a Lloyd production – one thinks of the woefully under-rated Urinetown and his Macbeth with James McAvoy – and the idea is clearly always to strip productions down to their foundations and get to the nub of what they are saying.

Lloyd has clearly decided Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s old Seventies musical is about sex. It’s what attracts Samantha Pauly in the title role to Ektor Rivera’s charismatic Juan Perón, and, in turn, it’s what attracts Argentina to them as a couple.

Stage performance of Evita at Regents Park Theatre. Photograph: Marc Brenner. – Credit: Archant

The two principals exude sex appeal and so does the whole ensemble, which includes such gifted and passionate performers as Jon Tsouras, Felipe Bejarano and Bree Smith. Trent Saunders adds ballast to the proceedings as the narrator Che and there is a wickedly funny turn along the way from Chanai Owusu-Ansah as a venal and precocious little child.

Evita is a funny old musical not least because it starts off with a funeral and the morality of its central character is somewhat questionable, but this is the one Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber collaboration where there isn’t just one memorable big number, but a whole suitcase full of them. I fancy Rice has never tried harder in his life to make a musical work because this one was very much his idea and Lloyd Webber had not initially been very keen on it.

It’s always most associated with Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, but it’s some of the more brittle and cynical standards like And The Money Kept Rolling In and Oh What a Circus that always strike me as the most effective. There is some proper, grown-up acting required, too, from Pauly and Rivera as they come to terms with mortality and what it is that really matters in life.

Lloyd’s is a very modern and innovative Evita. It is a riot of colour and movement and outrageous pyrotechnics and it’s a magnificent success. I sat not far from Rice on the first night and it was pleasing to see his expression go from an initial look of apprehension to one of beatific joy. In true theatrical tradition, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has saved the best till last in its summer season.

– Evita runs until 21st September at the Regent’s Park Theatre.