JOYCE MCMILLAN on EVITA at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 1.2.14.
4 stars ****
AN AMERICAN VICE-PRESIDENT once called it “the century of the common man”; and if that was the true story of the 20th century, then surely Argentina should have its own chapter in the narrative. First seen in London a whole generation ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Time Rice’s finest musical is a tense, thrilling and glamorous sung-through drama about one of the century’s most dramatic attempts to create a government of and for the people, and about its ultimate failure.
It’s therefore no accident that the show’s narrator-figure is none other than Che Guevara, the young Argentinian who – after his death in Cuba – became the world’s iconic image of true revolutionary spirit. And in this well-estabished but beautifully-staged production from the Bill Kenwright stable, at the Playhouse until next Saturday, Che is played by Marti Pellow of Wet, Wet, Wet with a bitter, street-wise intensity that makes absolute sense of his harshly sceptical view of the show’s dazzling heroine, Evita Duarte, and her meteoric rise from a humble backgroud in smalltown Argentina, through a brief acting career, to a short but breathtakingly glamorous life of national adulation and global fame as the wife of President Juan Peron, before her dramatic death from cancer at only 33.
Set by Matthew Wright on a brilliantly simple, flexible and good-looking pillared set, this version of the show therefore revolves much more obviously than some around the ambiguous imagined relationship between Che and Evita, the woman who claimed to represent Argentina’s working-class “shirtless ones”, but whose husband headed yet another Argentinian military regime. In Bob Tomson’s production – fabulously lit by Mark Howett – Madalena Alberto plays Evita with a hard-edged showbiz energy and glamour that morphs easily into political charisma, and makes her final illness all the more poignant. Mark Heenehan is moving as Peron, the military leader genuinely in love with the actress; the ensemble set-pieces are clever, pointed, perfectly-choreographed. And in the pit, Matthew Loughran’s ten-piece band leads the cast through what’s almost certainly the strongest score Lloyd Webber and Rice ever produced; a basic medley of strong, memorable melodies – from the clever, complex love-song I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You to the touching Another Suitcase In Another Hall – that twines and recurs throughout the story, and reaches a terrific climax in the show’s great, sentimental, anthem; the song that asks us not to cry for Evita, and absolutely ensures that we do.