Will Marti Pellow attract enough tipsy hen parties to Evita to flog all 18,000 seats?

Plus: a masterclass in dramatic writing from David Hare in The Vertical Hour - if you ignore the predictable politics

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

4 October 2014

9:00 AM


Dominion Theatre, until 1 November

The Vertical Hour

Park Theatre, until 26 October

Tim and Andy are back. Their monster hit Evita opens the fully refurbed and re-primped Dominion Theatre, which is built on the scale of an airport terminal and needs a big production to fill it. This is a beautiful version of a show that marks a decline in the Tim and Andy alliance. It hasn’t the naïve and exuberant mischief of Joseph, nor the scope and the sustained dramatic force of Jesus Christ Superstar. Earnestness, and over-reverence for their subjects, are starting to creep in. It spoils the fun to know that the Perons weren’t a pair of sweet-natured do-gooders handing out beefsteaks to the underclass but a couple of egos on stilts running a dictatorship based on fear.

The show’s two great songs are linked by a lot of connective tissue that doesn’t match them for quality, but when those big numbers arrive, one in each half, the effect is nape-tinglingly good. Sarah McNicholas, playing Peron’s former mistress, wrings every last drop of gooey emotion from ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’. Madalena Alberto, a Portuguese beauty, flings herself at ‘Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina’ with enough passion to halt a juggernaut. She’s a songwriter too, by the way, with a newly released album called Don’t Cry for Me, which must be one of those extraordinary coincidences that happen in showbusiness.

Evita at the Dominion Theatre London until 1 Nov - Madalena Alberto as Eva - photographer credit Darren Bell
Madalena Alberto as Eva

The star attraction, Marti Pellow, spent the 1990s as lead warbler in the infelicitously named boy band Wet Wet Wet. Pellow doesn’t have to act here, just sing a bit, which he duly does. Officially, he’s playing Che Guevara, the noted terrorist, and he saunters around the stage in combat gear, observing the action but unaffected by it, like a sports commentator on his way to an IRA reunion. Pellow prefers not to mar his jawline with Guevaran whiskers and he opts instead for a light downing of gigolo stubble, which goes well with his big shiny spaniel eyes. His function, in commercial terms, is to bring in tipsy hen parties and coachloads of expanding waistlines from the suburbs. Fingers crossed, this should work. But 18,000 seats a week is a lot to flog.

Park has revived David Hare’s 2006 play The Vertical Hour. First things first, this is a masterclass in dramatic writing. Study all of it, I would advise aspiring playwrights, but copy none of it. Hare breaks the rules and takes crazy risks with the insouciance of a world-beating performer. He trundles six characters on stage and gets them to talk for three hours solid. There’s no action except in the emotional ether floating between their personalities. My guess is that Hare’s characters are rather like their author: detached, brainy, sophisticated, exceptionally assured and talkative, and a mite chilly behind the sensitive exterior, and a little too smitten with the depth of their knowledge, the range of their interests, and their spectacular gifts of self-expression.

Christmas lunch at the Hares would, I suspect, be a testing encounter for the poorly briefed. The play’s centrepiece is a debate about Iraq, which now feels dated and predictable. An idealist hawk takes on a sceptical dove, and neither budges an inch. And they offer no opinion that you haven’t heard endlessly rehearsed in Wetherspoon’s or on Question Time. Beneath this skirmish, an older and bloodier battle is under way. Philip has brought his American girlfriend Nadia to meet his divorced and reclusive father Oliver. When Oliver starts to charm Nadia, Philip detects a sexual threat and concludes that Oliver intends to use love to destroy his happiness, just as he did with Philip’s mum. (She was driven nuts by Oliver’s infidelities.) These narrative intricacies are elaborated with as much adroitness and artistry as the stage can produce. What a pleasure it is to experience three hours of intelligent talk underpinned by a sinuous, semi-visible current of sexual temptation and mystery.

The Vertical Hour at Park Theatre. Peter Davison (Oliver) and Finlay Robertson (Philip). Photo credit TEA Films (3)
Peter Davison in The Vertical Hour

Nigel Douglas’s spare and lucid production isn’t entirely flawless. The American accents are a bit Home Counties. The cast might be more glamorous and handsome (excluding the youngsters). Nadia, a media pundit from Yale, needs a touch of Angelina about her. Or perhaps just a bit of Condoleezza. Less frump in the wardrobe department would help. Philip is a rising whizzkid in the healthcare profession and one might expect a chiselled hunk with a 1,000-watt smile. Finlay Robertson looks a touch sallow and lichen-furred for a hotshot American medic. Oliver, aged 58, was once such a crumpet-monkey that he used to smuggle Parisian prostitutes home in the boot of his car. And he now has his dewy eye on Nadia so he needs to crackle with a bit more sexual static than the avuncular Peter Davison can manage.

But these are the tiniest shortcomings. This is a fine revival of an exceptional work of art.

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