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Reviewed: Evita at Curve

It's all new in Buenos Aires!

Martha Kirby as Eva Perón. Photo by Marc Brenner.
Martha Kirby as Eva Perón. Photography by Marc Brenner.

Evita has always been a surprising choice for a musical. When it first opened in 1978, starring a then-unknown Elaine Paige in the title role, it was the third work of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber.


Their two previous productions - the schools' version of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and West End smash, Jesus Christ Superstar - had both adapted bible stories. Therefore, the choice to focus on the wife of a South American dictator was... left-field, to say the least.


Now, 45 years later (crikey), it's still a surprising choice, as Curve have selected it for their Christmas production.


The story focuses on the rise of Eva Duarte, who uses key men to climb the ladder of fame in Argentina. Eventually, having become one of the best-known radio actors in South America, she meets Colonel Juan Perón, a populist political figure, and soon to be President of Argentina. She quickly convinces him that he'll be a more effective leader with her at his side. She becomes a Princess Diana-like figure, beloved by the people and a prized political asset. A power couple is born... but power corrupts.


Honestly, I can't think of a less-festive musical. Anything that starts with the main character's funeral, jumps back in time and then leads up to her death (spoiler alert, but c'mon... you've had 45 years...) doesn't exactly get you ready to 'deck the halls'.

Martha Kirby (Eva Perón) and Dan Partridge (Magaldi) and the cast of Evita - Photography by Marc Brenner.
Martha Kirby (Eva Perón) and Dan Partridge (Magaldi) and the cast of Evita - Photography by Marc Brenner.

I'd been warned by friends that it was quite a 'marmite production'. To be fair to it, I think that's at least partially on the show itself, rather than Curve's adaptation. I first saw Evita in a touring production about 15-20 years ago, and didn't really take to it. A bit morose for my taste.


I was also hesitant to watch a period piece that had been done with modern costuming. "This isn't 'these-lessons-are-still-relevant-today Shakespeare'!" I thought to myself. It's a historical parable, set in a very specific point in time. So, I must confess, I went in with low expectations....


I was wrong. I loved this.


This delivered all the scale and spectacle that Lloyd Webber's epic score demands, but it's also the most stripped-back, simple, not-overdone production I've seen from director Nikolai Foster, and - in my opinion - all the better for it.


Yes, the costuming was contemporary, but with just enough flavour of the past to keep your mind in 1940-50s South America. And the stage elevated all the key moments. The two most impressive elements of Michael Taylor's set are:

  • The bridge; suspended from the fly rail, and used to great effect any time the Peróns are addressing the Argentinian people (during a recent backstage tour of Curve, Foster admitted that the theatre have bought the bridge rather than hire it, so we should expect to see it in many future productions!). It is used to great effect. As Eva starts to become corrupted by power, the bridge (with the Peróns on it) starts to lower, crushing the people beneath it. Excellent choreography to create a beautiful visual metaphor.

  • The live digital screen: from the moment Eva's celebrity starts to rise, she has a camera in her face, the live footage of which is shown on a giant screen at the back of the stage. It's a clever device that Foster uses to add to Evita's aura of fame and influence.

Evita observes her own funeral - Photography by Marc Brenner.
Evita observes her own funeral - Photography by Marc Brenner.

If you don't know the story of Eva Perón, be warned: this is an opera, not a musical. There's barely a single line of spoken dialogue in the whole show, and everything is told through the music. Therefore, it can be slightly difficult to keep up with at times, and this might well be where the "marmite" tag comes in. My plus-one for the evening didn't know the story, and had a similar experience of it as I had 15-20 years ago; frustrated by getting lost in the plot. Marmite indeed.


At the heart of this show is Martha Kirby's performance as Eva. Kirby is endlessly watchable. Your eye follows her even when she's not the focus of the action, nor the one singing. It's a quality that is essential for Evita, as she needs that magnetic presence to lead her people believably. Kirby's voice is pristine, and her rendition of the musical's most famous song, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" is flawless.

Martha Kirby (Eva Perón) sings "Don't Cry For Me Argentina". Photography by Marc Brenner.
Martha Kirby (Eva Perón) sings "Don't Cry For Me Argentina". Photography by Marc Brenner.

She also has great chemistry with Gary Milner's Juan Perón. Milner is the right balance of charm and intimidation. Believable as both a deadly soldier and a charming husband and political leader. Some interpretations of the show leave it up to the audience to determine whether Perón is a noble or despotic leader, but considering costume designer Edd Lindley has Milner first appear in an all-black, Gestapo-esque uniform, the production is clearly happy to push the audience in one direction.

Gary Milner as Juan Perón. Photography by Marc Brenner.
Gary Milner as Juan Perón. Photography by Marc Brenner.

Tyrone Huntley plays the narrator, Che. Interestingly, when Hal Prince directed the original production, he was unequivocal in presenting him as Che Guevara - an anti-authoritarian voice of the people. This was always a touch ridiculous, as Guevara, though Argentine born, was always better known for his role in Cuban history. More recent interpretations have Che as a simple peasant; a representative of the Argentine people, who holds Evita to account for her actions and broken promises. Huntley does a decent job, but when left alone on a bare - almost cavernous - stage, he struggles to fill it (but then, who could compete with a 30ft video screen of Martha Kirby?). He does much better when interacting with the other actors, and Che comfortably serves his role in driving the narrative.

Tyrone Huntley (Che) and the cast of Evita. Photography by Marc Brenner
Tyrone Huntley (Che) and the cast of Evita. Photography by Marc Brenner.

The other performance I must mention is Chumisa Dornford-May as Mistress, Perón's lover before he meets Eva. The character appears for all of 10 minutes (if that), yet sings one of the show's most iconic numbers, "Another Suitcase in Another Hall". In terms of service to the narrative, the character has no right to a song this big, but follows the tradition of early Lloyd-Webber/Rice shows, where one character pops in for a cup of tea, steals the show, and leaves (King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar and Pharoah in Joseph). And my word, Dornford-May does just that. The hairs on the back of your neck, arms, and legs will all stand on end. The programme informs me she received the Elaine Paige Scholarship for Excellence in Musical Theatre, and it's easy to see why. Keep an eye out for Dornford-May - I doubt we've seen the last of her.

Chumisa Dornford-May as Mistress. Photography by Marc Brenner.
Chumisa Dornford-May as Mistress. Photography by Marc Brenner.

Ultimately, Evita is not a good Christmas show, especially compared to recent, brighter choices - this would've been phenomenal in October. The post-show request for charitable donations, followed by a very forced "aaaaaand... Merry Christmas!" from the cast had a tinge of the cringe to it.


But if you're looking for an excellent piece of theatre, and not something to get you in the Christmas spirit, Evita is a spectacular production. Though be warned, it will split opinion.


★★★★½


Evita is at Curve from November 27, 2023 to January 13, 2024. Tickets are available from the theatre website.

3 Comments


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