Review by Raphael Kohn
Oh, what a circus, oh what a show! Curve Leicester has certainly done it again with their new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s enduring classic. Save your thoughts on the writer himself – I’m sure they’re diverse and often critical – but his score for this masterpiece, a blend of pop, rock and tango, is undoubtedly an enduring classic of the musical theatre canon. Curve’s task, however big, is to answer the question: how high-flying and adored can they make a brand-new ‘Made At Curve’ production of this 1970s classic?
Director Nikolai Foster answers this question rather similarly to Jamie Lloyd’s 2018 revival, with a stripped-down production, amplifying up the rock elements of this rock opera while keeping much of the material intact. Set on Michael Taylor’s skeletal set, Foster brings to life Evita with a 2023 gaze, reimagining the titular character not just as a political figure, desperate for votes, but as a social media influencer.
This is Evita for the TikTok generation – Eva thrives off the attention of a live camera feed taken onstage, desperately craving your desire for her like a streamer. With the screen portrait, off-centre on the stage at the back, it truly feels like a TikTok or Instagram Live as Eva belts out her high notes while staring into the camera. The use of live video, clearly on-trend at the moment in British theatre as similar techniquesare used in the recent revivals of Oklahoma! and Sunset Boulevard, is a sight to behold and often incredibly effective, bringing to life this influencer-Eva in style.
It’s always been an interesting subject matter for musical theatre, a true biography of the Spiritual Leader of Argentina, Eva Perón. Charting her rise from a basic actress to the First Lady of Argentina, Evita follows Eva from her beginnings as Eva Duarte, trying to find her feet, as she meets Juan Perón, the soon-to-be President of Argentina. At times following her rise through the men she uses to climb the social ladder (a slightly outdated motif, but this is somewhat to be expected from a 1970s musical), Eva grows in popularity as she ascends to national fame.
But instead of casting a well-known musical theatre performer as Eva, Curve’s decision is to bring to the fore Martha Kirby, of few known credits. Kirby is a sight as Evita, especially when broadcast in high-definition on the production’s huge screen, looking very similar to the real-life figure as she belts out Lloyd Webber’s excruciatingly difficult score. Unlike previous portrayals, she’s neither bitchy in her acting nor screamy in her singing, but genuinely manipulative and power-hungry. She doesn’t forcefully take power, but is more subtle, and more intelligent than any portrayals I’ve seen before, and it works.
Her co-star, Tyrone Huntley as Che, is a true marvel. Huntley has the stage presence of the greatest Ches to ever perform the role, delivering a magnetic performance to put him in the halls of fame of performers who have ever played the role. It’s almost impossible to take your eyes off him much of the time as he draws in your gaze towards him, commanding the cavernous Curve stage with ease. With a tremendous tenorvoice to match, it’s hard to imagine more intelligent casting.
Gary Milner’s Juan Perón’s natural authority comes across well as he rises in power with Kirby’s Eva by his side, while Chumisa Dornford-May makes the most of the role of ‘Mistress’, a role which always leaves you wanting more as its performer gets so little stage time. Dornford-May gives an excellent lesson in acting through song as she fleshes out her character sublimely, even despite having so little time to do so. But perhaps the best thing about this cast in general is its ensemble, clad in black, who dance, sing and act their way through the show sublimely.
It does seem a shame to have to note that this production, set in Argentina and surely a great opportunity to showcase the talent of British Latinx performers, seems to have cast a disappointing lack of Latinx performers. Although this of course does not detract from the terrific talent assembled for this production – the cast is a strong one of performers who all give 110% throughout the show and bring some terrific portrayals to the stage – yet I could not help but wonder if the wider casting decisions were misplaced in not casting more Latinx performers, especially in 2023 where this should be more of the norm.
But my woke whining aside, it is a truly scintillatingproduction. At times I did find myself wondering what was going on with the plot – I for one know the plot well as someone who loves the material deeply – but with such a strong concept at the fore, presenting the 2023-influencer-Eva idea front and centre, the plot itself fades into the background, becoming secondary to Foster’s strong concept. It certainly left me wondering if those less familiar with the show might struggle at times to follow the story. It’s a shame that this detailed biography becomes so obscured – it’s a great story that Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice’s work tries to set out in such a detailed way – and this all falls to the kerbside as Foster’s ‘TikTok influencer’ concept at times overshadows the wider plot.
But that is only in the realms of pure plot – and this production of Evita is more than that. Where the plot fades, the production succeeds, with the stunning, if minimal, set, and particularly Joshie Harriette’s spectacular lighting design. The lighting is nothing short of incredible – frequently blinding the audience with audience-facing rigs, flashing and strobing the performers, and bringing up and down from the fly tower an array of rigs that, in clear view of the audience, form not only part of the set but create a wide variety of effects and tableaus that amaze and dazzle in equal measure. It would not be unfair for me to say this may well be some of the best lighting I’ve seen on stage this year.
This blends seamlessly with Adam Murray’s punchy, powerful and passionate choreography, using the ensemble’s talent to great effect. Some of Lloyd Webber’s more rock-like moments in the score truly exhilarate in this production – ‘Buenos Aires’, ‘A New Argentina’ and of course ‘And TheMoney Kept Rolling In’ are toe-tappingly exciting just from the music alone, but are turned into showstopping moments by Murray’s excellent choreography.
Jaw-droppingly exciting, this political powerhouse of a revival is yet another success for the Midlands’ trailblazer producing house. It’s pacy, scintillating and engrossing from start to finish, with solid leading performances and an exciting concept behind it to distinguish this production in the masses of revivals of Evita as truly unique. Frankly, you must love it.
Evita plays at Curve Leicester until 13th January 2024. Tickets available from https://www.curveonline.co.uk/whats-on/shows/evita/
Photos by Marc Brenner