We’ve met Evita many times over the years since she first became an unlikely hit of the West End stage back in 1978. Too often those reunions with the star of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical have been in threadbare touring versions, often with stunt casting that did the show no favours. It might seem a stretch, in 2019, for the work to feel not just fresh, but revolutionary all over again. Yet that is just what this radical revival by Jamie Lloyd achieves. Lloyd approaches the musical in a way that is entirely new, with just the briefest, shrewdest but most effective of nods to that familiar staging cliché: the triumphant pose on the balcony of Buenos Aires’ Casa Rosada during the famous number, "Don’t Cry For Me Argentina." Instead, Eva Duarte – quickly to become the wife of authoritarian president Juan Peron, the idolised Argentine First Lady, and an international icon of power, ambition and glamour – is the sort of scrappy, working-class young woman with fire in her belly and a will of iron who you might meet in any city street, and whose hunger for success feels arrestingly current. Every second of the show has been considered and reconceived. The relationships feel real, the violence and mob hysteria exhilarating and, at times, terrifying. And the allure and perils of populism could hardly be more potent than they are in our present political moment, with Trump in the White House, Johnson in No 10 and the Far Right on the rise across Europe.
From the start, the staging is pulse-racingly exciting. Samantha Pauly’s Eva, dressed in a white slip, her hair long, dark and wild, stumbles through the audience to the stage, which, in Soutra Gilmour’s design, is starkly set with steep bleachers and "Evita" spelt out in giant, corroded letters. This is not a glorious entrance. She is ill, in pain, exhausted, just as she was by the time of her premature death from cervical cancer in 1952, at age 33. As she staggers into the midst of mourning crowds, there’s a storm of smoke bombs and ticker tape. She’s met by Trent Saunders’ Che, a rangy, timeless figure who could be a firebrand student from almost any era, dressed in his Che Guevara t-shirt. Throughout the action, as we return to the start of her extraordinary career as actress, seductress and notorious figurehead, he is beside her, narrating, cajoling and increasingly horrified as the Peron regime grows more corrupt, more ruthless, and the country careers into debt, poverty and brutal oppression. Ultimately, he too will be a victim of shockingly savage bullyboy tactics.
But, to quote from Rice’s lyrics, oh what a circus, oh what a show. The choreography by Fabian Aloise is nothing short of astonishing – thrillingly athletic, sexy, slick and charged with a genuine sense of risk. The dancers slink, tango, leap and fling one another across the bleachers, those vertiginous steps on Eva’s route to power. In "The Art of the Possible," soloist Mireia Mambo, dressed in the tight trousers, peaked cap and jack boots of the military, executes an extraordinary dance of violent suppression and coercion. She stamps and twirls, her muscles rippling, points two white-gloved fingers, pistol-style, and Peron’s opponents fall. It’s spine-tinglingly sinister. Eva literally crawls over men’s bodies to reach her goals. And when she’s preparing for her European diplomatic tour, she twirls before a team of stylists who spray-paint her white dress in vivid colours – a sly reference to a famous catwalk show by Alexander McQueen that points up, for the fashionistas among us, Eva’s love of designer style (paid for at the expense of the people she claimed to love so much).
The singing is terrific, Pauly’s voice elastic, potent and gutsy, and superbly matched by Saunders’ seething, rock-star drawl. Ektor Rivera’s Juan Peron, meanwhile, is creepily smooth. It’s no surprise to us when he slides away from his dying wife’s bedside to slip a proprietorial arm around her pulchritudinous replacement. And clever details of that sort abound. The young Eva runs with a tough girl gang and spits out her class fury – a justified rage we are swept along by, until we’re confronted with the appalling price of her ambitions. The ensemble scenes have all the charge of a street rally that could, any minute, turn into a riot. Only at the very the end – after her death, extravagant funeral and embalming – does she finally appear, in full familiar regalia: that frothy strapless Dior dress, the platinum wig, the raised arms. It’s a brilliant evocation of the mythology not just of Evita the woman, but of Evita the musical. Tremendous.