Sharnbrook Mill Theatre
8th October 2023
It’s been a busy time for the lovely folks at the Sharnbrook Mill Theatre in Bedfordshire, as a sell-out production of ‘Evita’ has been playing to captive audiences, and follows the months of work that must’ve gone into creating the show. EastMidlandsTheatre.com was lucky enough to be invited to the final performance, and we can safely say that the week ended for everyone on a “Rainbow High”.
‘Evita’ was first developed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice as a rock opera concept album back in 1976, which did so well that it led to a full production in London two years later (that ran for eight years) and launched the career of a certain Elaine Paige (as well as becoming the first British musical to win the Tony Award for Best Musical). It’s rarely been seen off our stages its 40-plus year history, and was also brought to the silver screen in the 1996 film adaptation starring Madonna.
The biographical story tells of the life of Eva Duarte (played here by Jorja Osbourne as a child and later by Elspeth Duffy from adulthood), a young ambitious Argentinian woman who longs for a better life and a career as an actress. After meeting singer-songwriter Agustin Magaldi (Chris Craigen), Eva realises she has significant power and influence over men, and soon begins to climb the social ladder as her attachments grow more significant, leading her to becoming the second wife of president Juan Perón (Martin Grover). Her natural charm and sway gain her affection from the Argentinian people, and as her humanitarian philanthropy makes her their spiritual leader, her secret battles with an undisclosed illness threaten to overshadow everything she’s built.
Tim Rice has said that ‘Evita’ is his favourite of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s scores, and it definitely has its standouts (the political fire and drive of “A New Argentina” and “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, and the quiet beauty of “You Must Love Me” and “Another Suitcase In Another Hall”). It is however one of Webber’s more repetitive scores with more than his usual amount of melodic recycling going on, and there are more than a few whispers of Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar in it. But when it’s good, it’s great, and the highs it delivers are thrilling. It’s a sung-through show, a format which isn’t always the most accessible to audiences, and a lot of concentration and focus is required to fully glean the story from Tim Rice’s lyrics alone. It does however do a great job of painting a multi-dimensional study of a complex woman, formidable and flawed, and makes Eva Duarte de Perón a captivating focus for a musical.
The Sharnbrook Mill Team haven’t shied away from the daunting reputation of one of Webber & Rice’s biggest shows, nor it’s scale or complexities, and have delivered a fantastic version of it. Barry Thompson directs with confidence and gives the show a polished assurance that defies its amateur status. It may be performed in an intimate space but its ambition is large, bold and brassy; this is a little show with a big voice and a lot to say (or more accurately, sing). Pace does flag later on, with the second act feeling less focused than the first, and Eva’s untimely demise feels drawn out. However, this is the way the show is written, and the Sharnbrook Mill Team deliver is faithfully. Resident MD Kaye Tompkins once again works wonders with the score, really bring it to life with her orchestra of ten that make Webber’s tunes sound as sensational as you’d hear in larger productions, and the choreography (Jacqueline Knighton and Hayley Gilbert) is full of Latin American flair and works really well, especially the tango sections performed wonderfully by Stephanie Smith and George Harrison.
The role of Eva is an absolute behemoth for a even a professional performer to deliver, and what Elspeth Duffy delivers here is nothing short of astounding. The paradoxical strength and vulnerability required for this character is so hard to come by, and Duffy makes it look effortless (including in the vocal stakes with those high notes). Duffy shows Madonna how it’s really done, it’s a breath-taking performance and when she sings “you oughta know what you’re gonna get in me, just a little touch of star quality”, she’s absolutely right. The believable on-stage chemistry and vocal strengths between Duffy’s Evita and Grover’s imposing Juan Perón is particularly good.
It’s also wonderful to see Lauren Bain again, who was so great as Cathy in Sharnbrook Mill’s “The Last Five Years” in 2022, and she shines once more here as Peron’s Mistress, delivering “Another Suitcase In Another Hall” as a standout moment. Paul Wildman is also excellent as Che, the volatile “Everyman” mouthpiece of the Argentinian people framing Eva’s story. Wildman exudes a natural relaxed confidence and sounds fantastic in his solos.
For an amateur group to take on one of the titans of musical theatre and deliver is as well as this, is a remarkable achievement. The show itself may stray from its path in its second act and is less musically bulletproof than some of its creators’ other works, the Sharnbrook Mill team need to be very proud of themselves. “On this night of a thousand stars”, it’s this talented bunch who shone.
Evita ran at the Sharnbrook Mill Theatre from 3rd to 7th October 2023.
Performance runtime 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.