“Charismatic despots are back in fashion” claims Jamie Lloyd, director of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s shiny new staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s hit musical Evita. It tells the story of Eva Perón, first lady of Argentina from 1946 to 1952. Somewhat worryingly, Trump named Evita his favourite musical in his 2004 book Think Like a Millionaire (he’s also recently compared ex-bartender turned congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to Eva, which is confusing and revealing to say the least), but don’t let that put you off. Lloyd, fresh off his Pinter at the Pinter season success, has opted for an entirely new approach. With no flashy set and no grandiose costumes, this production gets down to the bare bones of the woman, the grit and tenacity that made her Evita.
It’s no secret that Lloyd’s productions are bloody stylish, and Evita is no exception. Narrator Che (Trent Saunders) is dressed like he works at GAP, in khaki chinos and white trainers, except for the t-shirt with his own (Che Guevara’s) face on it. Evita herself (Samantha Pauly) is styled like an Ariana Grande tribute act, in a little white dress and trainers. Balloons are used cleverly in ‘Goodnight and Thank You’ as Che and Evita team up to bin off a string of boyfriends, and they remain a motif throughout. Confetti cannons are set off regularly, and smoke sticks are used every twenty minutes. The whole thing is like a pop concert, a rally, a circus, and there’s a radical, exciting feeling in the air as Evita and husband Juan Perón sing for ‘A New Argentina.’
But it’s Pauly as the woman of the hour who steals the show. She’s magnetic, and while Evita says and does some horrendous things, we can’t help but secretly adore her anyway, and how could we not? She’s incredibly smart, resourceful, beautiful, and, crucially, is not afraid to admit when she is wrong. She’s branded a “slut”, “bitch”, and “whore” but with grace, she smiles through it all. For a girl who came from nothing, she is the epitome of class. Watching Pauly play her with strength and tenderness is a joy, and she belts out favourite numbers like ‘Buenos Aires’ and ‘You Must Love Me’ with ease.
Her brilliance is matched by Saunders as Che, another fictionalised figure from Argentina’s political history. Their chemistry together is palpable, as he acts as her conscience, counsellor, fan, and biggest critic rolled into one. He’s menacing and unsympathetic, but during ‘Evita’s Final Broadcast’ as they both lay on the floor, him naked and beaten, her close to death, she sings a final verse of ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ through tears so touchingly that it has me, despite her request, crying for her. Both persecuted, both with a certain naïve but admirable hope for a better world, both spokespeople for the ‘descamisados’, or ‘shirtless ones’, they’re an incredibly dynamic pair.
Eva Perón died of cancer at just 33, however, she managed to cram more in those three decades than most of us do over our entire lives. Lloyd’s reimagining of this world-famous story hits all the right notes, and I think will be enjoyed by long-time fans of the show and young newcomers alike, as hers is a universally appealing story of hope and overcoming adversity. With a golden cast, timeless book and lyrics, and Lloyd’s modern millennial appeal, Evita is unmissable.
Evita is playing at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 21 September. For more information, visit the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre website.