JOYCE MCMILLAN on EVITA at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, JEFFREY BERNARD IS UNWELL at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, and THE SINS OF THE FATHERS at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 2.6.11
Evita 4 stars ****
Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell 3 stars ***
The Sins Of The Fathers 3 stars ***
AS MUSIC, it’s often overblown. As drama, it tends towards to the sentimental. And as politics, it’s confused at best; yet still, there’s no denying the terrific energy of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s huge 1978 hit, Evita. Bill Kenwright’s current UK touring production – directed by Kenwright with Bob Tomson – is itself no spring chicken; its fine sets and costumes have already been seen in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen on two or three occasions in the last half-decade.
Yet still, the strength of the story, combined with high production values, a 21-strong performing company, and some great set-piece choreography by Bill Deamer, delivers a memorable theatrical punch. This time around, the role of Evita falls to Abigail Jaye, a terrific singer with a sweet, flexible soprano voice that rises effortlessly to the challenge of the show’s big anthem, Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. Behind the sweetness, though, she also has a flash of hardness, and of a streetwise glamour that perfectly matches the character of Eva Duarte de Peron, the smalltown girl turned singer who, by the time she reached her mid-twenties in 1946, had sung and slept her way to the top of Argentinian society, and become the lover, then the wife and political partner, of the man who would be President, Juan Peron.
Somewhere in the flood of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s continuous score, and of Tim Rice’s clever lyrics, there is the outline of a serious drama about right-wing populism and its contradictions. The Perons were swept to power on a tide of popular anger against a corrupt political elite, not dissimilar to the impulses that have inspired this year’s Arab spring; yet in the end, they were unable to offer Argentina’s poor “shirtless ones” much more than the odd donation from Evita’s charitable foundation. Rice and Lloyd Webber never make much of the character of Che, the left-wing activist who narrates Evita’s story, although he has traditionally been identified with the legendary Argentinian revolutionary, Che Guevara; and in the second half, they allow the show to dwindle into a tear-jerking account of Evita’s early death from cervical cancer, at the age of only 32.
Yet towards the end of the first act – when Evita meets Peron and becomes the driving force behind his political career, defying the horrific snobbery of the Argentinian political establishment to become his first lady, and a global icon of 1940’s glamour – there is a real sense of history in the making, and of a marriage that itself briefly symbolised a new relationship between Argentina’s elite, and the common people from whom Evita had come. And there’s also a series of songs – from the love song I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You to the joyful political anthem A New Argentina – strong enough to carry the weight of the drama; and to make us feel the the extraordinary energy, promise, and final tragedy of Evita’s life, a tragedy that was not only personal, but political.
If Evita Peron crashed and burned on the global stage in notably dramatic style, the English journalist, wit and raconteur Jeffrey Bernard drank himself to death at a more stately pace, finally bowing out at the age of 65, back in 1997. Keith Waterhouse’s tribute to Bernard and his lifestyle was first seen in London and Brighton back in 1989, when its subject was still alive and drinking; and 22 years on, it still makes for a mellow if slightly soporific evening’s entertainment, touched with an edge of truly enjoyable English absurdism, and a thought-provoking rejection of the increasingly insistent edicts of the health police.
The latest actor to try his mettle in the role of Bernard is the elegant Robert Powell, who makes a fine job of explaining to the audience, in a monologue interrupted by memories brought to life by four other actors, just how he has come to find himself sound asleep on the floor of his favourite pub, the Coach And Horses in Greek Street, at 5 o’clock in the morning. Since I was once married to a man to had a student job behind the bar of the Coach And Horses, I can testify to the accuracy of Jonathan Fensom’s set, and its near-perfect reproduction of the decor and atmosphere of the place; also to the precision of the play’s indirect portrait of the legendary landlord, Norman Balon, the grumpiest man ever to enter the service economy. And although I can’t vouch for the rest of Bernard’s stories, they certainly made me laugh. “Who wants a career, when there’s racing at Doncaster?” asks Bernard, always fond of a flutter; and it’s a question to which more of today’s whey-faced salary-slaves should give serious consideration.
Death is also ever-present in Patrick Harkins’s The Sins Of The Fathers, the last Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime show of this spring season; but here, the bringer of death is not drink or disease, but the Spanish Civil War. David Hayman plays a Francoist soldier who, for reasons of his own, wants a private settling of accounts with the middle-class left-wing poet Diego, shiftily played by Sean Scanlan; meanwhile, a young girl partisan close to death lies on the floor between them, symbolising all the youth and beauty destroyed in the conflict.
The texture of Harkins’s writing is often crass and obvious, and the play contains no action to speak of. Yet at its best – like Evita – it provokes some thought about how hatred of arrogant elites can drive ordinary workers to the right as well as to the left; and how those who claim to care for social justice inflict terminal damage on their cause, when they fail to live out the full meaning of the values they call their own.
Evita at the Playhouse, Edinburgh until Saturday, and at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 6-11 June. Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, and The Sins Of The Fathers at Oran Mor, Glasgow, both until Saturday.