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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Aldwych Theatre


  Ph: Nobby Clark

Stephen Ward – we’re told in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of the same name, which also happens to be the last of six major new London musicals to open in the second half of the year just gone – was “a man of many parts.” How nice it would be, in that case, if the show alerted us to any of those facets. Instead, the title character finishes the evening as much the same cipher he is at the beginning. You have to applaud the ambition of a production from Lloyd Webber first-timer Richard Eyre that doesn’t flinch from putting under scrutiny a society that it clearly finds wanting, but the evening as a whole has the feel of a belated pardon, musical theater-style, afforded a figure who seems destined to remain forever out of its final reach.
Those unfamiliar with Ward should know that he was the US-trained English osteopath who moved easefully among the haut monde of British life a half-century or more ago, as you would too if you had a cottage on the Astor family’s Cliveden estate an hour or so northwest of London and a patient list that ranged from Ava Gardner and Winston Churchill to Mahatma Gandhi. It’s during a night on the town in Soho that Ward makes the acquaintance of Christine Keeler, a showgirl in her late teens who before long is being offered lodging in the doctor-socialite’s tony London flat.
Barely is the fresh-faced (and perhaps more importantly, skinny-dipping-minded) Keeler soon after introduced to the Cliveden set before she has caught the eye of then-war minister, John Profumo, with whom she has an affair – even as Keeler is carrying on with a Russian naval attaché and spy, Yevgeny Ivanov, who may or may not be passing on (or receiving) state secrets from the curvaceous young brunette with whom he slides between the sheets. As if this sexual and political intrigue swirling around him weren’t enough, Ward in due course was put on trial and found guilty of living off “immoral earnings,” or prostitution. Not that the doctor ever saw a day in prison. As it happens, he died of an overdose before the conclusion of a scandal-mongering court case that helped to undermine an ailing prime minister in Harold Macmillan and lead to the routing of the Conservatives in the elections that followed. 
This is ripe material, to be sure, and has already prompted a fine 1989 British film on the topic titled Scandal, with John Hurt as Ward and Ian McKellen, then in the comparative infancy of his film career, as Profumo. At the time, I interviewed Keeler herself – who is very much still alive, incidentally, at the age of 71 – for the Associated Press and vividly recall an angry, bitter if clearly once-beautiful woman who felt as if she had been hard done by the various personages involved; her rancor existed in contrast with that of her onetime chum, Mandy Rice-Davies (played by Bridget Fonda in that Michael Caton-Jones film), who, unlike Keeler, went on to marry money not once but twice, and there’s a surely a worthwhile film or play to be fashioned out of the wild contrast in the lives that these two young provocateurs (whether they saw themselves as that at the time or not) went on to have once the so-called Profumo affair subsided and the long reach of time took over.
Until such day as that cultural artifact arrives, we have Stephen Ward, which takes a hectoring approach to history even as it aims to titillate audiences with glimpses into the very sexual hi-jinks that on another level it wants to deplore. (There's much snark directed toward The News of the World, the since-folded tabloid whose manifold disgraces live on to plague the British still.) An underpowered first act sets Ward up as the sacrificial victim of a hypocritical age (the opening song, as if on cue, is called “Human Sacrifice”), while a livelier if, in theatrical terms, standard-issue second act is given over mostly to a courtroom drama full of rather obvious ironies: the first-act “You’ve Never Had It So Good,” a song title lifted from the jolly mantra of the Macmillan era, acquires a newly ominous feel in keeping with courtroom proceedings that are described as “political revenge.” Let’s just say that if the British judicial system doesn’t fully exonerate Ward, which it looks poised to do as recently happened to the comparably elusive onetime Bletchley Park figure of Alan Turing, at least Andrew Lloyd Webber – a figure who by definition inhabits a modern-day equivalent of the same exclusive circles in which Ward moved some 50-plus years ago – can be said to have done his bit for the cause, with his "Sunset Boulevard" book and lyric-writing team of Christopher Hampton and Don Black along for the literal-minded ride.
All of which makes this musical more interesting for what it represents than for what it actually is, especially as served up in a surprisingly coarsely acted and unattractively designed production that makes one ponder what might have happened if director Eyre and producer Robert Fox, both of them working for the first time with the British theater’s reigning musical theater talent, had enlisted, say, their erstwhile colleague David Hare (Skylight, Amy's View) to fashion a credible script. Then again, the idea of Hare in creative cahoots with Lloyd Webber really does beggar belief.
Much the best aspect of a loveless piece that exists at the thematic end of the spectrum from the Lloyd Webber norm (whereas his previous show told us that “love never dies,” in this one it’s never even born) are the twin performances of Alexander Hanson’s compulsively watchable Ward, an aggrieved narrator of his own foreshortened life who exists as a kindred figure of sorts to the doomed Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, and the always-excellent Joanna Riding, on emotionally telling form in the fleeting role of Valerie Hobson, the actress who stuck by her husband, Profumo, during the entire sordid business and beyond. (Riding gets an excellent if essentially superfluous solo in the second act, which serves as this musical’s equivalent to “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” from Evita.)
As for the prospects of an endeavor that reveals its composer in (literally) minor-key, non-blockbuster mode, you have to credit Lloyd Webber for very real candor when he told the Telegraph newspaper in a pre-opening interview that Stephen Ward could very well not make it to the spring. I’d love to think he’d be proven wrong, but for all the best impulses of a piece that wants to do the proper thing by its grievous subject, a musical steeped in score-settling but not in actual character is unlikely to sing.


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