Theatre: Marti Pellow and Madalena Alberto in Evita

Marti Pellow. Picture: Alan Peebles
Marti Pellow. Picture: Alan Peebles
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At the Playhouse in Edinburgh today, there’s a final chance to see Madalena Alberto and Marti Pellow playing up a storm in the handsome Bill Kenwright touring production of Evita, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mighty 1978 musical. It’s possible to argue about whether this is the best production of Evita ever staged, or about whether Pellow is in his element as the narrator, a fictional version of the iconic revolutionary, Che Guevara.

What’s hardly open to dispute, though, is that in telling the story of Argentina’s glamorous mid-20th century first lady – of her rise from extreme poverty to fame as an actress, her marriage to future President Juan Peron, her betrayal (as Che sees it) of the working people she claimed to represent, and her tragic early death – Rice and Lloyd Webber created a show for grown-ups. Throughout Evita’s early career, she uses men, and sidelines other women, in ways that are expressed in subtle, knowing songs like Good Night And Thank You, or Another Suitcase In Another Hall. When she finally meets the man of her life, they sing not a cheesy love-song, but a beautiful, intricate tango called I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You; and the show finishes not on a big final number, but with a spotlight on Evita’s coffin, as the music fades.

All of which invites stark comparisons with the Playhouse’s huge Christmas hit, The Lion King, which emerged as the biggest box-office success the huge 3,000-seat theatre has ever staged, attracting a total audience of 325,000 at around £50 a head. The show is calculated to have brought millions of pounds into the local economy between November and January; and 60 per cent of those who saw it were newcomers to the Playhouse. These are staggeringly impressive statistics, and The Lion King was clearly aimed at a festive family audience; but all the same, and despite its beautiful and intriguing animal puppets and gorgeous sets, it is an almost painfully childish show, with a forgettable script, banal songs, and a coming-of-age story so predictable that it barely holds the attention.

Nor is it alone, in this preference for childishness – or at best an ironic jokiness – over a bold, complex approach to grown-up themes. The fabulous War Horse, currently a huge success at the Festival Theatre, is based on a book originally written for children and young people. Recent hit shows like Disney’s High School Musical are directly aimed at a bubblegum teenage sensibiility. Musicals like the Rocky Horror Show and Wicked – set to storm Scotland later this year – draw their energy from other genres which they send up in style; Wicked is based on the children’s classic The Wizard Of Oz. And although these musicals vary in tone, they all end with a big number, and a sense that everyone but the villains will live happily ever after.

So it’s perhaps small wonder that 21st century audiences tend to react with a sharp intake of breath to older musicals – Evita, or West Side Story, or Carousel – that actually behave like musical dramas; that tackle complicated grown-up emotions, and dare to end on a tragic note. Perhaps, as prices rise and earnings remain in the doldrums, people are no longer ready to pay out for shows that don’t offer an upbeat treat for all the family; or perhaps the prophets of doom are right, and our whole culture is becoming infantilised.

What I sense, though, is that sky-high ticket prices never make for boldness, in any genre; the higher the price, the greater the temptation to play it safe, and keep it bright. Evita may be the best of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows, dramatically and musically; but it’s a strange world in which this huge commercial success, created a generation ago, begins to look like a radical and challenging piece of theatre, compared with most of the shows being created today, for the same big stages.

Article by Joyce McMillan