Of all the shows I’ve seen over my year with the Birmingham Hippodrome, Evita is probably the one that has surprised me most of all. From what I’d heard and what I thought I knew about it, I really didn’t expect to enjoy it very much, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I’d seen a little of the film before, but quite a long time ago, and only really enough to get a sense of there being a lot of Madonna in it. It didn’t really interest me much. What I discovered at the Hippodrome on Wednesday night, however, is that Evita is a fascinating and deeply political story, presented in a very interesting way. Rather than this being – as I had suspected – a show that idolises and idealises its title character, it is a thoughtful and often critical look at that very culture of celebrity idolisation.
The fact that Eva is an actress by trade, and someone who has more than once “re-created” herself, casts into doubt the authenticity of her adopted role as Argentina’s saviour, as does much of her behaviour – her taste for expensive clothes, for example, or her “welfare by lottery” reforms. Eva Péron “performs” Evita, in much the same way as Madalena Alberto performs Eva, and it’s this that makes her such a brilliant subject for an elaborate stage show. There’s a constant tension in both the story and the design between reality and fantasy, surface and depth, as well as a sense that every successful political campaign is a kind of show, not dissimilar to the one we’re watching. This results in some very “meta” moments, most notably when Eva sings the iconic “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, just after Péron’s election victory. When she emerges onstage above us, breathtaking in a gorgeous, glittering ballgown that seems to light up the entire room, it’s next to impossible not to be swept up in the magic and glamour of the moment. As she looks down at the audience from her balcony, we become the adoring Argentinian masses: yet, just before we’re able to get too lost in the spectacle, the revolutionary Ché appears as the voice of reason, pulling us back down to reality.
Ché’s oddly chirpy-sounding numbers unfortunately don’t have quite the same power as the soaring songs in the rest of the show, but he’s an interesting character nonetheless. You’re never quite sure who he is or where you stand with him. Is he Ché Guevara, somehow projected back from the future? Is he there to represent the Argentinian masses, or the audience? Is he Eva’s conscience or just a hallucination? Is he simply a narrator, all of those things, or something else entirely? It’s possible that all this ambiguity is partly a result of this particular production being quite a short, cut-down version of the original play, but either way, we don’t necessarily need to have definite answers for it to work.
Madalena Alberto is magnificent as Eva, capturing the character’s youth and vulnerability as well as her power and intelligence. Thanks to Matthew Wright’s amazing costume work, her sparkling white dress is just one of many beautiful outfits that she and the other women appear in. There are also some excellent performances from Nic Gibney as Magaldi and (sadly rather briefly) from Sarah McNicholas as Péron’s mistress. The ensemble cast are great all round, including the child actors, one of whom delivered an incredibly assured and professional solo. One small criticism I had was an apparent clash in singing styles: some cast members have a much more pronounced vibrato than others. While there’s not necessarily a problem with either style, it would have been better to have kept things consistent throughout.
As we’ve come to expect at the Hippodrome, too, the choreography is absolutely spot on. There are some wonderful set pieces, particularly “Péron’s Latest Flame” (which closed the first half), where upper class ladies and high-ranking soldiers frown on Péron’s and Eva’s budding relationship.
With its self-awareness, complex politics and clever characterisation, Evita is much more layered than your average West End musical, without sacrificing any of the more straightforward entertainment that other popular stage shows can offer. This production is well designed and perfectly paced, and is one I’d definitely recommend!
Photographs by Keith Pattison.