You can accuse Andrew Lloyd Webber of many things – you often do – but you can’t level the charge of uniformity at the subjects he chooses. If you can forgive this blasphemy, given that one such subject was the superstar Jesus Christ, Stephen Ward is arguably his most interesting.
He is also the most widely misunderstood. This could have been his own fault, if fault it was. But it was also the fault of a censorious old England not quite yet in its death throes as postwar morality gave ground to the Sixties. Someone had to be punished for the scandals surrounding the young model Christine Keeler, and her mentor Ward was that person.
The shorthand always used to describe him is society osteopath, and this is fair enough as far as it goes. He was a man widely credited with the gift of healing hands and he acquired what must be one of the most distinguished roll of clients ever to have submitted to a specialist’s touch – Gandhi, Churchill, Fairbanks, Sinatra, Danny Kaye, Elizabeth Taylor, the list goes on. To say nothing of his sitters – including Prince Philip – for he was also a gifted portraitist. Sufficiently so for the Daily Telegraph to send him to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
How to cover the life of a complex individual whose narcissism all too easily obscured a desire to do good and to exercise, ironically, the famed old national virtues of loyalty and selflessness. Well, first you get a decent playwright with a strong track record in the debatable ground between public and private life. Enter, left, Christopher Hampton. Then you get a proven lyricist who can accommodate knobbly notions – nuclear secrecy, Cold War, by-election Britain – into the compass of a West End show number. Enter, centre, Don Black. Then you sit down at the piano and let the old melodic flair kick in.
And this it almost does. “Almost” only because these numbers seem to make a point of not showing off. This is a world away from the rock anthems of Superstar and the lavish swoops of Evita. We are closer to the territory of his Aspects of Love, with the result that Stephen Ward the Musical is often more of a chamber piece than a knowing spectacle. This is no bad thing, since it plays to the smaller emotional centres of the story, rather than to the larger, more tabloid flurries of public outrage. Hence the scene-setter in the teenage Keeler’s humble home near Staines – a railway carriage without the wheelbase – becomes the starting point of an essentially sympathetic portrait of her, her friend Mandy Rice Davies and Ward himself.
A Lord he may now be, but Lloyd Webber got there by the scenic rather than the hereditary route, and the old liberal in him is unextinguished. It is even possible, on the evidence of the piece, that he identifies with the boho booziness of the louche but aristocratic world in which Ward’s awful story unfolds. Certainly his fickle friends and persecutors are almost as harshly dealt with as the judiciary dealt with him. None more so than the flaky Lord Astor, who had once let Ward have a Thameside cottage in the fantastical grounds of his country estate Cliveden for a pound a year, and who loved to have the young things come up to the big house from Ward’s weekend parties.
Ward’s alleged crime, remember, was the implausible one of his living off the immoral earnings of his young women friends. It seemed at the time, and seems even more so now, to have been the last desperate attempt to nail a man whose real transgression was a hedonistic independence of spirit and behaviour. Yes, he was probably irresponsible and risk-taking. But a pimp? Surely not.
Lloyd Webber’s musical is as diligent in its story-telling as time allows. The difficulty here is that it’s actually a big story. The core of it would seem to be the allegations of national security risks through a girl who is (apparently) having concurrent affairs with the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo and Commander Eugene Ivanov, a Soviet naval attache at the Russian embassy in London.
By the second act, when we have moved from Murray’s Club, where the girls worked, and Cliveden, and Ward’s Wimpole Mews flat to the chillier locations of Fleet Street, Parliament and the Old Bailey, the whole thing gets louder and darker. This seems right. There’s some serious felony in the pipeline, but the perpetrators now are the lordlings of the rotten professional estates such as press, Parliament and the law.
There’s a cartoon quality to some of these sequences – the menacing rollick of the hacks’ chorus, ‘Give Us Something Juicy’, and the all-too-accurate transcript of the trial itself. It is in this scene that one of the true villains of the piece comes to declare himself. This is prosecuting counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones QC, presented as that worst of English creatures, the aggressive prig. But a rather voyeuristic one too, dwelling with a little too much relish on the detail of the encounters alleged to have taken place in Ward’s flat.
As with much of Lloyd-Webber, some of the triumphant moments are ones of unashamed sentimentality. The most striking one here is the touching holiday balcony scene when Profumo finally confesses to his wife Valerie that he did indeed have a fling with Keeler, therefore did lie to the House, therefore must return to England in the certainty of career-ending disgrace. Her response is the rueful “I’m Hopeless When it Comes to You,” performed by Joanna Riding to Daniel Flynn’s Profumo with all the poignancy of a torch song. Musical victory snatched from the jaws of emotional defeat.
As Ward, Alexander Hanson makes a good fist of the tricky role in which he has to move from racy charm to crumpled stoicism and suicidal despair. Anthony Calf is a wonderfully watchable multi-tasking baddie as Lord Astor and Griffith-Jones, while the two Charlottes, Spencer and Blackledge, are all too believable as the vivacious girls whose own alleged sinning was a frolic in the park compared with the bad behaviour of the establishment.
Stephen Ward the Musical is almost damned good. What keeps it from higher praise is the fact that it ultimately bites off more than it chews. All manner of monstrosities are lurking in a background too crowded for the proper addressing of each: Peter Rachmann and slum-lordism; the white man’s mixture of envy and terror of the black; the Parliamentary chicanery that brought the Keeler case to light; above all, the story of Profumo, seen here as a victim of his own weakness but ultimately a model of penance and remorse.
However, what does come through is the sheer sadness of the story, or stories, and the shabby scape-goating of Ward for having embarrassed his betters. None seemed to believe he had never wanted his association with Christine to be a sexual one. You can’t help thinking they were judging him by their own standards.
Reviewed by Alan Franks
Stephen Ward The Musical
Cast includes: Alexander Hanson as Stephen Ward, Charlotte Spencer as Christine Keeler, Charlotte Blackledge as Mandy Rice-Davies, Anthony Calf as Lord Astor, Daniel Flynn as John Profumo, Joanna Riding as Valerie Hobson, Ian Conningham as Ivanov, Chris Howell as Murray, Ricardo Coke Thomas as Lucky Gordon and Wayne Robinson as Johnny Edgecombe. Martin Callaghan as Peter Rachman, Kate Coyston as Murray’s Girl/Ronna, Jason Denton as President Ayub Khan/Ensemble, Julian Forsyth as Rawlinson, Amy Griffiths as Murray’s Girl/Vickie, Paul Kemble as Redmayne, Emma Kate Nelson as Murray’s Girl/Mariella, Carl Sanderson Male Ensemble, Emily Squibb as Murray’s Girl, John Stacey as Boothby, Helen Ternent as Murray’s Girl and Tim Walton as Murray’s Singer.
Music – Andrew Lloyd Webber, Book and Lyrics – Christopher Hampton, Book and Lyrics – Don Black, Director – Richard Eyre, Set and Costume Design – Rob Howell, Lighting – Peter Mumford, Sound – Paul Groothuis, Video and Projection Design – Jon Driscoll, Musical Supervisor – Graham Hurman, Choreography – Stephen Mear.
49 Aldwych, London, WC2B 4DF
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm
Booking From: 3rd December 2013
Opening Night: 19th December 2013