by Peter Nicholson.
Not having seen the stage show of Evita prior to my visit to the MAST Mayflower Studios on Wednesday evening, I was seeing the world-famous show with a very open mind, and no preconceived notions. To be frank, the only recent experience I’d had with one of the shows written by this renowned composer was Cats. It was not a pleasant experience. I was certainly hoping for an improvement on that disappointment.
I was realistic with my expectations, this wasn’t a West End production, with an almost limitless budget, it was a performance by Southampton’s own SOS Presents, an organisation who have been producing musical theatre in the city since the 1920s. With this amount of history behind them, I was optimistic.
This was the opening night of the run at MAST Mayflower Studios, and there was a real buzz of excitement as we took our seats. Browsing through the very professional looking program, I was interested to read that the lead role of Eva Peron was to be played by a debutant with SOS, Laura Hill. I was also keen to see how the 20-year-old Toby Vanhaecke would play a vital role in the performance. Both exceeded my expectations.
Although there were a few first-night-nerves evident in the first 20 minutes, all the cast quickly settled into their roles and were clearly enjoying the chance to bring all their hard work to an appreciative audience.
The two cast members mentioned above were certainly among the highlights of the evening – Toby gelled the scenes together perfectly with a confident and charismatic display of his talents. There were a couple of moments when the sound needed adjustment when the mic seemed a little too close to his mouth, and another point where the headset mic hadn’t been turned on when his lines began. However, undeterred, he continued with consummate professionalism, projected his voice and immediately returned to his usual singing voice as soon as the problem had been rectified. For one so young, it was an exceptional performance.
Laura Hill impressed me more as the performance continued. Her acting, her stage presence and above all, her voice. Such operatic style productions are full of notes which don’t always scan well to the untrained ear (my ears fitting into that category) but Laura’s voice carried the musical conversation between songs beautifully. She had obviously put in a huge amount of work into the role.
Another highlight for me was the song performed by Peron’s three mistresses as they are sent on their way. Singing solos in turn under some well thought out and very effective lighting, their voices conveyed the desperation of their characters situation. Beautiful voices and beautifully acted.
Although I’ve not seen this production previously, I suspect there are some extravagant dance sections in the West End version of the show. Without the inclusion of a troupe of professional dancers, the entire ensemble of this production were up to the task with some interesting movements on stage, thanks to the choreography which ensured that everyone was continually where they should be and the story had a visual impact.
Finally, a mention must be given to the orchestra. When I first saw the position of the orchestra in the two rear corners of the stage, I wondered if this would distract from the actors on stage. It turned out to be quite the contrary. It enhanced the experience. The conductor (Teddy Clements) steered his musicians through the complex compositions with apparent ease and professionalism. The music blended seamlessly with the vocal skills of the performers. The guitar of Rich Spencer was particularly delightful when it came to the fore for a couple of numbers. The guitar is often overlooked in such productions which rely more on other strings, but not in this case.
In a nutshell, the performance is a glowing testament to the talents we have in our city. From the obvious hard work during pre-production, to the backstage technical team and the cast themselves. I, along with the entire audience, enthusiastically applauded the show at the end of the evening as the cast took a well-deserved bow. Congratulations to everyone involved.
Evita runs at MAST Mayflower Studios until January 28. For tickets and more information, click here.
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