EVITA at the Bristol Hippodrome

Following its successful run at the Dominion Theatre in London, Bill Kenwright has brought his production of Evita to the Bristol Hippodrome. Thirty years ago there can have been few London theatre-goers who were at all familiar with any details of Argentinian political history, but the runaway success of Evita changed that state of affairs.  However, the historical accuracy of this tale of how an illegitimate radio actress became ‘Spiritual Chief of the Nation’ has been the matter of some dispute, and there were violent protests in Buenos Aries when the 1996 film version starring Madonna was released there.  Evita is certainly no hagiography, but neither is it wilfully destructive of its central character’s reputation. There is little doubt that under her husband’s leadership Argentina became a kind of fascist welfare state, and this production of Evita explores that paradox. It offers a fascinatingly nuanced portrait of an Evita Peron who was undoubtedly driven by ruthless personal ambition, but who also had a particular affinity with the descaminados, the ‘shirtless ones’.

The show opens with a scene of formal reverence; it is Evita’s state funeral. But the pompous solemnity of Requiem For Evita is punctured by the scornfully dismissive remarks of a character dressed in beret and combat fatigues; it is ‘Che’, a Guevara-like figure who acts as a kind of Greek chorus, offering a detached commentary as events unfold.  His cynical Oh What A Circus sets the tone for the first half. This is sustained in a wryly amusing sequence where we see aspiring actress Evita Duarte take on and summarily dismiss a whole string of lovers.  Emma Hatton is the go-getting Evita, cheerfully discarding all her would-be suitors with a Goodnight And Thank You until she encounters the equally ambitious Colonel Juan Peron. Their duet, I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You, is a deliciously ambiguous highlight of the show. Is their relationship founded solely on a coldly pragmatic recognition of mutual advantage, or are they drawn together by real affection? We are not sure, but we do know that Peron’s cruelly discarded mistress feels genuine despair.  Sarah O’Connor’s fine singing of the mistress’s sad aria Another Suitcase In Another Hall is a touching portrait of someone who has become a casualty of other people’s ambitions. Argentinian high society is curtly dismissive of Evita’s rise to social prominence, and the haughty put-downs delivered by the fashionably dressed beau monde in the song Peron’s Latest Flame are very reminiscent of the snobbery of the Ascot Races scene from My Fair Lady. But the ordinary working people adore Evita, and the first half ends with the optimistic promise of A New Argentina.

The second half of the show focuses on Peron’s presidency and Evita’s triumphant elevation to near sainthood.  We see her on the balcony of the Casa Rosada, her glittering white dress an indication that she is now virtually a bride of the state. Emma Hatton’s interpretation of Don’t Cry For me Argentina is spine-tinglingly good, leaving us to judge whether we entirely buy into her claim that fame and fortune were never her aim.  We see an Evita who certainly needs the adoration of the people, but how much affection does she have for them?  After all, in Rainbow High she has sung, ‘They need to adore me, so Christian Dior me!’  All the glitter and glamour comes to an end when Evita falls seriously ill.  Her relationship with Peron has real tenderness as she nears the end of her life, and in her last broadcast to the nation she finally attains a genuinely tragic status.

This production of Evita is loud – sometimes too loud – and very colourful. There are excellent dance sequences and dramatic shifts in mood.  But any production of Evita will stand or fall on the quality of the two central performances. Gian Marco Schiaretti is given a very brief profile in the otherwise very informative programme notes, but he is a magnificent Che, with a big voice and a commanding, sardonic presence.  Emma Hatton triumphs as an Evita who is both tainted and saintly. An experienced jazz singer, Hatton is also entirely at ease in other musical genres, delivering soaring ballads and pounding rock with equal aplomb. The standing ovation she was given last night was well deserved. Great stuff.   ★★★★☆   Mike Whitton  15th February 2017