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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
STEPHEN WARD
at Aldwych Theatre

STATE SECRETS
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Charlotte Spencer and Charlotte Blackledge/ Ph: Nobby Clark

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical, Stephen Ward, opens with a waxwork tableau in Blackpool’s Chamber of Horrors showing Ward posing in tandem with, among others, Adolf Hitler and the acid-bath killer. Quite apart from the fact that Ward doesn’t belong in such heinous company, the waxwork setting – which also ends the show – is all too appropriate for the lifeless entertainment that’s about to be unleashed on us.

Yet another retelling of the infamous 60s scandal, it rehashes the story of Christine Keeler, a sexy 18-year-old showgirl who brought the government to its knees (pun intended) after her brief but much-publicised affair with John Profumo, the 46-year-old secretary of state for war.

The incident would probably have evaporated into the ether had it not been for the fact that Keeler was also sleeping with Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attache-cum-spy onto whom she might have passed classified information as a result of her pillow talks with Profumo. 

In case you’re too young to remember, it was the charming, well-connected osteopath Stephen Ward who, in his unofficial capacity as an Establishment pander, introduced Keeler to Profumo at Lord Astor’s stately pile, Cliveden. 

The fallout of their month-long affair, which ultimately resulted in Profumo’s resignation, was such an embarrassment for the British Establishment, Ward was made the fall guy. He was arrested and ultimately convicted on a trumped-up charge of living off the immoral earnings of people like Keeler and her frisky friend and contemporary, Mandy Rice-Davies.

The musical’s raison d’etre is to expose what its creative team – Christopher Hampton (book) and Don Black (lyrics) – consider to be the hypocrisy of the Establishment and the shocking miscarriage of justice it engendered. You’re asked to believe that Ward’s vilification was just as scandalous as the affair he was accused of initiating.

As appealingly portrayed by the personable Alexander Hanson, Ward emerges as an engaging toff, a talented portrait painter and a highly successful osteopath whose list of patients comprised a veritable who’s who of high society. He enjoyed arranging sexual encounters for his friends while remaining seemingly ambiguous about his own private predilections. He never went to bed with Keeler or Rice-Davies, taking instead a voyeuristic pleasure in their liaisons with other men, many of which occurred in his own apartment.

Much of the second act, set inside a courtroom, is a full-frontal attack on the Establishment’s hypocrisy and its determination to punish Ward for a scandal that also saw the resignation (on the grounds of ill-health) of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

The bottom line is, who gives a damn today? To successfully musicalize a 50-year-old scandal comprising a set of morally unattractive protagonists unfamiliar to the majority of theatregoers weaned on Wicked, The Lion King and The Book of Mormon, you need a great score, pungent lyrics and a book with sharper claws and a deadlier bite than the rather timid one on offer. 

Typical of the show’s lascivious intentions but unrealised in its execution, is a wild party number called "You’ve Never Had It So Good, You’ve Never Had It So Often," which, for all its lewd aspirations, is pretty tame; about as shocking as a Donald McGill seaside postcard, with an added dose of titillation courtesy of a brief glimpse of Keeler’s naked backside.

Even more disappointing is the score. Too often it relies on a kind of sung recitative when spoken dialogue would have served the same purpose. Songs exist in a musical to express what words alone cannot. The nearest Lloyd Webber comes to producing the kind of soaring ballad for which he is known, is "I’m Hopeless When It Comes to You," sung by Profumo’s actress wife, Valerie Hobson, who, incidentally, was quite a big name in British cinema, though you’d never know it from the underwritten way she is characterised here.

The song certainly soars, but it’s so derivative of several other Lloyd Webber ballads, the only thing you experience is deja vu.

Nor does the score evoke the period. Faint echoes of the 60s are heard in the song "1963" and in the Super-Duper-Hula-Hooper routine performed in a nightclub. The rest is blandly generic. Black’s lyrics are pretty banal too; but at least they rhyme.

Working in a revolving set by Rob Howell that uses a pair of glitzy circular curtains to conceal the scene changes, director Richard Eyre brings a professional veneer to Hampton’s undernourished book, and draws some good performances from the aforementioned Hanson as the eponymous hero, Charlotte Spencer as the promiscuous Christine Keeler, a zesty Charlotte Blackledge as Mandy Rice-Davies and a dignified Joanna Riding as Valerie Hobson. There’s strong support too from Anthony Calf as Lord Astor, Ricardo Coke-Thomas as Lucky Gordon and, in a trio of roles (Profumo, Reg Kray and a judge) Daniel Flynn.

It’s not their fault the show has no atmosphere, no inner life and not much momentum.

 


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