Is Stephen Ward a hit for Lloyd Webber?
Andrew Lloyd Webber is no stranger to a mixed critical reception, and his new musical based on the 1963 Profumo Affair, which premiered at the Aldwych Theatre last week, is no exception
Lloyd Webber... attempts to do for 60s Britain what Chicago did for 20s America. But, from the reedy opening number "Human Sacrifice" (which begins with the inauspicious lyric "Stephen Ward your friendly osteopath / I can fix your lower back for you"), it all feels somewhat underpowered and, dare I say it, cheap... The story kicks up a gear when Profumo himself (Daniel Flynn, who neatly doubles as Ward's Judge in the second act) enters the frame at Cliveden, the lavish estate of Lord Astor... Thenceforth there are some memorable moments; the ensemble's gutsy rendition of "You've Never Had it So Good", replete with gimp masks, whips and dog collars chief among them... But all told, like the Blackpool Chamber of Horrors into which Ward's waxwork is placed after his suicide, there's something oddly tacky and anachronistic about the whole enterprise.
...much as I admire the musical's good intentions and professional skill, Lloyd Webber's instinctive romanticism sits oddly with a social and political critique... Inevitably a lot of the show is taken up with recounting past events. This gives Lloyd Webber scope to come up with nifty pastiche songs in the style of the early 1960s... Alexander Hanson plays Ward excellently as a suave fixer who enjoyed knowing everyone and even imagining that he was a vital conduit for MI5. But, for all Hanson's commanding presence, we never get to fully understand Ward's character: his sexuality, given his strangely platonic relationship with Keeler, remains a mystery... Eyre directs it well on a revolving Rob Howell set that gives us a whistlestop tour of the 60s. Charlotte Spencer looks good as Keeler without ever suggesting she was half as much fun as her pal, Mandy Rice-Davies, whom Charlotte Blackledge endows with a bubbling bounciness.
Stephen Ward puts on show some filthy police practices (Ward was prosecuted under the Sexual Offences Act). It emphasises the shoddy behaviour by members of the so-called upper class who took Ward up and threw him down. My friend and cabaret correspondent Diana Melly, who worked at the same club as Keeler, tells me that Richard Eyre's handsome production got the place bang on, save that the proprietor was enormous and had a wooden leg. Lloyd Webber's music is pleasing, though it doesn't do much to evoke the pop culture of the period... A gorgeous "You've never had it so good" sequence is sung at an S&M dinner party, with spanking, masks, whips and much display of baggy white pants... The show needs more fire in its belly. I should like to see it refashioned as a cabaret in a smaller space.
Since he parted company with Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals have hardly been famous for their wit. They have been yearningly romantic, certainly, and often darkly gothic, but in the immortal words of Cilla Black, there haven't been a lorra laffs. So his new musical about the Profumo affair comes as a delightful surprise... there is also a sense of mischief about the piece, that finds this sometimes po-faced composer coming up with numbers in a rich variety of styles, so that the familiar yearning anthems are interspersed with songs of wit and fun. Several of the tunes are instantly catchy too... Richard Eyre's fluent production tells the story of Ward's downfall with a bracing mixture of humour and indignation... My hunch is that those who like Lloyd Webber best when he's doomy-gloomy won't warm to this show, but that those who have previously found him overwrought will find this sharp, funny – and, at times, genuinely touching – musical highly enjoyable.
This uneven musical play, with a book by Christopher Hampton and sometimes clod-hopping lyrics by Don Black, puts Alexander Hanson's louche, beautifully sung Ward centre stage as narrator and protagonist and lets him mount his own defence... The show rather labours the contrast between the "manipulation" of osteopathy and of chicanery. "I stretch limbs while they stretch the truth," sings Ward, surveying the scheming habitués of Murray's Club (Lord Boothby, the Kray twins et al)... The wordplay sounds a tad forced... Lloyd Webber's eclectic score has its witty touches and the odd surge of poignancy... But in the process of laudably trying to clear Ward's name, the show runs the risk of sanitising him. His platonic relationship with Keeler is romanticised in a way that downplays the seedy voyeurism and his use of the girl as bait.
Stephen Ward represents a change of direction for Lloyd Webber after Phantom sequel Love Never Dies. It's a small-scale production in the terms of musical theatre, a chamber piece at times, Lloyd Webber reuniting with his Sunset Boulevard collaborators Don Black and Christopher Hampton for book and lyrics... Ward is the narrator for his own story, and although Hanson is exceptionally smooth-voiced, we get frustratingly little sense of what drove this complex man... The show is stuffed full of Lloyd Webber's trademark stirring music, which plucks obstinately at the emotions... The showstopper number, "You've Never Had it So Good" (next line "you've never had it so often") comes during a riotous S and M-themed dinner party. Ward, the onlooker, is the only person to stay fully clothed.
Unfortunately, Stephen Ward sets about proving its hero's good character about as convincingly as a millionaire helping out at a soup kitchen. The first half is essentially a dirty-old-man fantasy, as Alexander Hanson's avuncular, charismatic Ward swings his way through the '60s suavely luring the barely legal Keeler (Charlotte Spencer) away from her mother, and twinkling like a kindly grandfather as he introduces her to her latest shag... to begin with it's quite enjoyable, in a guilty pleasure way. Richard Eyre directs at a great clip, there are some joyously campy flourishes... The second half, though, is a bore. [Charlotte] Spencer virtually drops out, and we're left with a self-righteous slog through Ward's trial and conviction... Ward is a fascinating figure, but far too complex and human to bear up to this brash analysis, no more credible or rounded than that waxwork Hitler.