STEPHEN WARD – Aldwych, WC1

SLEAZE AND SCANDAL IN THE SIXTIES 

There is a painfully beautiful song in the second Act of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s new musical about the 1963 Profumo affair, a potential classic.  “Hopeless when it comes to you” is sung by Joanna Riding as Valerie Hobson,  the war minister’s loyal wife, when he has admitted the affair with Christine Keeler and his lie to Parliament.  It feels inevitable that she should have the best number, because in this fascinating but squalid tale Hobson is the only untainted character.

Everyone else,  from the Home Secretary to the press pack and the police,  is either lecherous, naive,  mendacious, prurient, malicious or vengefully corrupt.  The teenage girls at the heart of it, Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies, are merely naive good-time teens;   Yevgeny Ivanov,  the fleeting lover who added a Cold-war frisson to the scandal,  is just an honest-to-god Russian spy with a taste for champagne.

But the rest are a terrible shower. And Stephen Ward,  the high-society osteopath and portrait painter who liked introducing teenage beauties to middle-aged married men and hearing reports of the sex,  is frankly a sleazebag.  Not a villain, not a pimp , but dislikeable.  Which is a problem tougher than most musical-theatre creators ever take on:   Lord Lloyd-Webber deserved his emotional press night bow among his cast for having a go.   If you believe, as I do, that there is nothing the form  should not attempt,  you must salute him.

His driving force is the belief – substantiated often , most cogently in a new book by Geoffrey Robertson QC – that Ward was stitched up by the establishment.  Not only because the affair toppled the Minister for War and the Macmillan government,  but because the exposure of his louche lifestyle –  cabaret girls, shag-happy aristocrats, Krays and Rachman and drug dealers –  forced Britain to look itself in the eye and admit that a certain looseness had taken hold, right at the top. Middle Britain  became one vast, horrified twitching curtain. I am just old enough to remember it.

The problem faced by Christopher Hampton’s book (extra lyrics by Don Black)  is acknowledging the miscarriage of justice without making Ward an improbable innocent.   He is the narrator – emerging piquantly from a Blackpool waxwork chamber-of-horrors between Hitler and Genghis Khan – with a lyric about how he only tried “to be kind”.   Alexander Hanson is a beautiful singer and a winning presence,  but the character can never be likeable. We see him befriending the vulnerable Keeler without sex –  a proxy seducer, a Pandarus promoting her  affairs with others.  We get lovely‘60s  pastiche numbers and interesting musical subtlety (all the orchestrations are Lloyd-Webber’s own);  in a character-development I would like to see more,  of we see Keeler becoming coarser, more dissonant and cynical (Charlotte Spencer carries that well). There is a good duet with the minxier Mandy (the real one, still glamorous at pensionable age, was in the front rows last night).

Tellingly we see Ward the only clothed one in a funny rum-ti-tum orgy scene,  and glimpse his fantasy of himself as a back-channel diplomatic fixer.  As the net closes, and with sinister aggressive crashing chords the awful press and worse police make a corrupt case against him,   he sits like a reverse image of the Phantom, at the receiving end of the angry music instead of singing it.  That works.

Over a year  ago the composer told me he was working on this, and I asked how he would handle Ward’s despairing suicide after the hostile summing-up.   In the event  he does it with a roaringly defiant man still clutching his final fantasy,  of himself as a human sacrifice.   That works.  I can’t predict immortality for this show, but am not sorry to have been there.

box office   0844 847 2379     to March

Rating:  four  4 Meece Rating

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