KEELER – Charing Cross Theatre, WC2

A SAD FLAT ECHO OF  NASTIER TIMES

“I have never committed a moral offence”  says Stephen Ward indignantly.   Sleek, patriarchal, patronizing, with a curious sexually ambivalent prurience,  Paul Nicholas convinces as a man satisfied with himself.   Never mind that he takes up pretty teenage simpletons, introduces them to his randy middle-aged friends, demands details of their sex lives “Bra first or panties?”, asks them for espionage pillow-talk and procures illegal abortions.

But Gill Adams’  play is called KEELER,  and  the important thing is that it is based on Christine Keeler’s own account and  approved by her:   a woman now aged and reclusive,  whose public identity has been defined by what happened to her half a century ago,  between the ages of sixteen and eighteen.  A strikingly beautiful Soho club dancer,  she was taken up by the society portraitist and osteopath Ward, and introduced both to dangerous lowlifes in the Rachman set,  and powerful wealthy men at Lord Astor’s Cliveden.

She slept with both the War Minister John Profumo and the Soviet attaché (and probable spy) Ivanov.  At the height of the Cold War and the global shudder of the Cuban missile crisis,  the scandal brought down the Macmillan government;  Ward killed himself before his conviction for pimping: a trial seen by many (including Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose much bigger version is about to open) as an Establishment revenge.  But it had, of course, the side effect of branding Keeler (and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies) as ‘prostitutes’.   In modern terms they were just ambitious models not averse to rich boyfriends:  Stringfellow girls,  football  WAGs if lucky,  at worst resorting to kiss-and-tell.  But in 1963  their public disgrace was extreme.

So Keeler has a right to be remembered in her terms,  and with Charlie Camms’ designs , ‘60s projections and music,   the play evokes smart flats, aristocratic swimming-parties and seedy clubs with tit-tasselled dancers playing coy and blowing kisses (ah, innocent pre-twerking days!).

It’s a missed opportunity though: a flat play with poor dialogue.  Sarah Armstrong’s Keeler has a pleasing vulnerability and nervous cheekiness: you wince for her,  though less for the tougher, larkier Mandy (Stacy Leeson).  The sequences with Profumo (Michael Good)  and Astor (Andrew Harrison)  are nicely dislikeable, emphasising the casually bossy entitlement of the age;    one of the strongest scenes has Keeler wanting to report her rape at the hands of one of the Notting Hill heavies of Ward’s slumming life,  and him shrugging it off “No bruises”.

Perhaps because Nicholas is also the director,  or due to the looming Lloyd-Webber musical,  Ward himself dominates more and more as the play goes on.  The corruption and unhappiness of Keeler fade in favour of a prolonged verbatim scene of his trial.  A queasy echo, come to think of it,  of the way the girls were treated as disposable and forgettable in 1963.

box office 08444 930650   keelertheplay.com  to 14 Dec

rating  :  three  3 Meece Rating

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