Evita review – oh what a circus as musical gets bizarre update

Before it became a hit musical in 1978, Evita started out as a rock opera concept album – and those origins echo throughout director Nikolai Foster’s contemporary reimagining. The stage is lined with scaffolding and the lighting rigs are exposed in Michael Taylor’s stylish set, which recalls backstage at Glastonbury but also (in one of many confusing pivots) behind the scenes at the theatre. Lighting designer Joshie Harriette’s spotlights feature memorably throughout: they caress Evita, dazzle and delight in her, and sometimes even set like the sun.

The production often looks beautiful, but it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. Evita is arguably Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s most ambitious work and needs a robust context, not necessarily faithful to the original but still consistent and illuminating. Foster’s interpretation never settles and, unfortunately, ends up diminishing the power of its real-life characters.

Eva Perón, the first lady of Argentina and spiritual leader of the people, has been restyled as a modern-day influencer. Or a working-class musical theatre actor. From England. Or America? It’s all very unclear. Martha Kirby is utterly charming, but the blurred context, combined with Rice’s very particular lyrics, work against her. As Evita’s strength fades near the end of her short but extraordinary life, she cries out to the people she supposedly fought for: “I’m Argentina and always will be!” Really?

A camera follows Kirby around for much of the production, projecting giant images above the stage. She is today’s social media star or celebrity turned political figure. But the screens feel distracting and even reductive. The real Evita, you feel, would not need them.

Wearing a beanie and casual clothes, Tyrone Huntley’s narrator cuts a confusing figure. With the chorus dressed in black – and performing Adam Murray’s muscular choreography – they resemble a group of contemporary dancers in rehearsal. Is Huntley speaking for them? Nothing quite adds up. The only time the production stands on its own feet is when Kirby sings. Her rendition of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina is a stunner – vulnerable yet steely, beautifully controlled. It is a tantalising glimpse of the fascinating character we might have met in a more coherent show.