Having previously been played by Elaine Paige, Patti LuPone and Madonna (who was as great in the film version as she’s been lousy in pretty much every big screen outing except Desperately Seeking Susan), Eva Peron in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita is a role that demands a powerhouse performer. Emma Hatton is more than up to the task. In fact, she’s quite brilliant as the determined-to-succeed-at-any-cost Argentine diva whose rise from gutter kid to powerful politician forms the plot of this musical masterpiece.

Hatton, whose previous credits include Wicked and We Will Rock You, doesn’t shy away from Eva’s ruthless side. For most of the show, which sees her sleeping her way up the Buenos Aires social ladder before setting her sights on future president Juan Peron, she’s very much the ‘slut’, ‘bitch’ and ‘dangerous jade’ the irate chorus labels her – seductively telling Peron she’d be surprisingly good for him, instructing her dressers “Christian Dior me from my head to my toes” as she takes her ego on a world tour and insisting to sneering socialites that she “won’t go scrambling over the backs of the poor to be accepted” as she steps on just about everyone else.

But damn if she doesn’t also bring us to tears. It’s no spoiler, given the fact the show opens with her funeral, to say Eva dies (of cancer at just 33 years old) but not before singing the heartbreaking You Must Love Me – a song imported from the film version that shows all the chinks in the armour Eva has been wearing all her short life. Then there’s Don’t Cry For Me Argentina which Hatton delivers flawlessly.

I have a friend who adores Evita but hates how there’s no pause for applause at the end of its most celebrated number, but the show is a juggernaut – a sublime refining of the rock opera style its composer and lyricist developed for Jesus Christ Superstar. Released as an album in 1976 and premiered in the West End in 1978, it’s propelled by Lloyd Webber’s classical rock score and Rice’s witty lyrics and has no fat on its bones.

This production, moving into the Phoenix to fill a gap left by the unexpected early closure of Gary Barlow’s The Girls, draws on the Latino flavour of the 2006 West End revival but, having been on the road since early this year, it’s very much a touring production. The sets aren’t as lavish as they should be and the ensemble feels pared-down, though they all work really hard.

The one weak link is Gino Marco Schiaretti as Che. It was Tim Rice’s brilliant conceit to insert a character very closely based on Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara into the narrative to function as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on Eva’s ascent up the political ladder. But Schiaretti, who played Tarzan in a German production of the Disney musical, doesn’t have the cynical bite the character needs and his voice is as thin as his arms are pumped up.

Emma Hatton carries this Evita, though, and she’s sensational. Bearing a striking resemblance to the young Elaine Paige and with an equally exceptional voice, I wouldn’t be surprised if her ascent after this is as rapid and thrilling as the lady she plays to perfection.

Rating: 4/5

Evita is at the Phoenix Theatre, London, until October 14th

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Words by Simon Button

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