Stephen Ward**** (Aldwych Theatre, 20 December 2013)

Posted: December 21, 2013 in Theatre

stephen wardThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

In 1963, when the Kennedy assassination rocked the world, Britain was still shaking from the seismic effects of the Profumo Scandal. John Profumo, Minister of War, had been sharing a mistress, Christine Keeler, with a naval attache at the Soviet Embassy, causing justifiable security concerns when Cold War paranoia was at its height. The MacMillan Government was destabilised, but, perhaps more significantly, the prurient and frenzied media coverage of the affair challenged the British Establishment and triggered a fundamental reappraisal of the values in our society. These events form the backdrop to this new musical which reunites composer Andrew Lloyd Webber with writers Christopher Hampton and Don Black, the team responsible for Sunset Boulevard. Stephen Ward, an osteopath with a long list of celebrity clients, got caught in the maelstrom by introducing Profumo to Keeler, but he was no more than a facilitator, an organiser of social occasions, albeit ones that flouted moral conventions of the day. Despite only playing a peripheral role, it was Ward who became the chief victim of the Establishment backlash, the scapegoat or, as described in the title of the show’s keynote song, Human Sacrifice. The story is told drily, rather like a dramatised documentary, feeding us much factual detail but rarely drawing us in emotionally. It is not entirely sung through, but substantially so. Richard Eyre’s imaginative direction brings a brisk pace to the first half, well assisted by Rob Howell’s set designs which use simple scenery and projections, changing rapidly behind swishing curtains. The second half is more static but includes an impressive courtroom scene in which the Judge towers above the accused Ward, now belittled by the Establishment that he has crossed. In the title role, Alexander Hanson is on stage for almost the entire first half and much of the second. His Ward is a suave libertine, not comprehending the significance of what is happening around him; he makes him aloof and largely unsympathetic, rather as Ward himself appeared in newsreel footage. Charlotte Spencer gives us a feisty Keeler, transforming from an innocent girl, dragged from her home in a converted railway carriage, to a much less innocent woman mingling with the high and mighty. Keeler’s friend, Mandy Rice-Davies, is played by Charlotte Blackledge as a mouthy tart, completely at ease with her promiscuous lifestyle. These events coincided with a momentous period for British music, as the Beatles made their breakthrough. Tribute is paid to the Fab Four’s early style with the delightful 1963, on which Christine and Mandy duet, and there are other dashes of 60s pop, even some reggae. However, the overall musical style is still very distinctively Lloyd Webber and, even if over-familiarity with that style dampens enthusiasm, there can never be any doubting the composer’s gift for conjuring up lovely melodies, which are plentiful here. Evita showed that Lloyd Webber’s music, even in its most romantic form, could fuse with a cynical, political storyline and the same trick is pulled off again. The lyrics merge seamlessly with the book, advancing the story, developing the characters and throwing in fascinating background information. Diners in a high class restaurant, including Lord Boothby, the Kray twins and Peter Rachman, burst into You’ve Never Had It So Good, echoing Harold MacMillan’s famous boast, but turning it into a celebration of their own hedonism. We then move to Lord Astor’s country estate where Ward sings Manipulation, at first explaining osteopathy, but the lyrics turn quickly to refer to nefarious dealings and widespread corruption; during this song, a sedate dinner party transforms into a bizarre orgy, which is beautifully choreographed by Stephen Mear. These scenes are gems, displaying the decadence of a fetid social elite that was soon to enter its dying days. The second half charts Ward’s downfall and it is then that the pace slackens and Lloyd Webber’s recurring musical themes begin to grate. Nonetheless, there are some outstanding sequences. It comes as a surprise to see a name as big as Joanna Riding cast in the tiny role of Valerie Hobson (Mrs Profumo) but the reason becomes clear when, late on, I’m Hopeless When It Comes To You falls to her and she does it full justice. It is one of the show’s two great songs, the other being the climactic Too Close To The Flame which Hanson delivers with tremendous power, bringing a lump to the throat, if not quite a tear to the eye. Stephen Ward is a production with little humour, no likeable characters, little visual spectacle and no obvious wow factor, yet it has degrees of intelligence and ambition that set it apart from most other musicals. Certainly the show has its flaws, but it still stands as a very considerable achievement.

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