This revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical begins dramatically, with the whole company on stage mourning the loss of the young Eva Peron. We are introduced to Che (Glenn Carter), a cynical and omniscient presence throughout the piece, who comments pretty much on every move Eva (Lucy O'Byrne) makes. And then we rewind to fast-track through the meteoric rise of the woman who became the "Spiritual Chief" of the people of Argentina.
O'Byrne plays the part with superb conviction. Showing a great emotional range and charisma, she captures the drive of a woman who grew up fatherless and in abject poverty, before breaking away to become an actress. She steals the show with the iconic number we all know, Don't Cry For Me, Argentina: her physical poise and presence, alongside a crystal-clear pitch-perfect voice, is mesmerising. It is the moment the whole audience is waiting for, and you could have heard a pin drop in the packed auditorium.
There is also a realistic, heartfelt chemistry between Eva and the powerful Peron (Mike Sterling). Their initial meeting – love (or was it lust?) at first sight – had me convinced, and I was carried along with their romance. I was only disappointed that, despite the offer the music makes during this scene, they did not actually dance together; in fact tango, the national dance life force of Argentina, does not feature at all in this production.
However, both Sterling and O'Byrne make up for that omission in their final scenes together. We watch the dying Eva, still in denial at how ill she actually is, comforted by Sterling – who comes over as tender, kind and loving to the last. It is beautifully done, and genuinely moving.
Virtually every scene is flanked by Che, and Carter proves to be an excellent character actor, linking the scenes seamlessly with his beautiful voice and easy presence. The only crack in his edgy narration comes when he watches Eva being taken off by the medics, and the brief connection between the two actors is momentarily spellbinding.
I liked the small glimmers showing a more ruthless side to Eva Peron: was she really the saint she was made out to be, and were her hardest critics right to be so judgemental? I guess we will never know, though we can be sure that she changed the face of history for the people of Argentina. I also thought the lighting was superb, creating beautiful shadows and atmosphere when needed.
This production is full of pace, intent and energy, but there were times in the larger scenes when it felt like too much was happening in a small space: and it missed some finesse for me. The choreography and dance routines were intricate, but the ensemble pieces could be tighter in their delivery. Frustratingly too, at times the actors were hard to understand clearly, because of what seemed like over-amplification of the sound. It was noticeably less of an issue after the interval, so perhaps it was just a technical wrinkle on the opening night.
Overall, this was a great production and it was clear that I wasn't the only person who enjoyed the evening – I could hear positive comments all around me as I left the theatre. I hope the rest of the run is as sold-out as the opening night. It deserves to be.