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Michael Coveney: Lloyd Webber dives into Soho with Mandy Rice-Davies

Michael Coveney attends the launch of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical based on the Profumo Affair

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Andrew Lloyd Webber and Mandy Rice-Davies
© Dan Wooller

The last time I was inside what is now called The Box, it was full of young ladies baring their bottoms in a revue presented by Paul Raymond. So, for his new musical about Stephen Ward, the society osteopath who made no bones about mixing with royalty one minute and Soho low-life the next, Andrew Lloyd Webber hit on the perfect venue for the launch.

Added authenticity came yesterday in the presence of Mandy Rice-Davies, the former model and showgirl who famously said, when told during the Stephen Ward trial (he was accused of living off the immoral earnings of Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler) that the Viscount Astor denied having an affair with her, "Well, he would, wouldn't he?"

Now 68, Rice-Davies, who went on to open a string of nightclubs in Israel with her first husband (she's had three), also once said that her life had become one slow decline into respectability. And to prove it, she lives in Virginia Water, Surrey. But she's still got the same blonde hair-style, a sort of smooth poodle arrangement either side of a front-loaded centre parting.

When the Stephen Ward scandal, better known as the Profumo Affair, kicked off in 1963, it alerted the public to a fascinating social web of country house high life, prostitution, rent racketeering, political skulduggery and louche nightclubs.

Mandy worked in a nightclub called Murray's near the London Palladium with which Lloyd Webber revealed a lucky connection (apart, of course, from owning the London Palladium): his former mother-in-law, Paula Brightman (Sarah's mum), worked there, too! Lloyd Webber apologised for bringing this up, but only to Paula: "That's how life is." Lyricist Don Black is an habitue of the area as well, not only through his connection with Tin Pan Alley and Denmark Street; he worked as a stand-up comedian in the Panama Club just across the road from the old Raymond Revue Bar.

The first impressions of Stephen Ward - from the four songs that were performed with an onstage band and a full cast of 15 for one of them, "Never Had It So Good" (a lively, stomping party ensemble, prefacing all sorts of bad behaviour, we hope, in which Harold Macmillan's famous phrase is cheekily twisted: "You've never had it so good... or so often") - are more romantic than satirical, more tender than trashy, more louche Downton Abbey than rancid Steven Berkoff.

And Alexander Hanson's Stephen is obviously more of a Phantom of the Hoopla than a torrid old toff on the razz. Snowy-haired director Richard Eyre set the opening scene in Madam Tussaud's in Blackpool, where the Ward waxwork, wearing shades and a dark suit, comes to life in a chamber of horrors like a creepy, good-looking James Bond figure... or the Phantom, perhaps, in Love Never Dies on Coney Island.

In the second song, Hanson was revealed on the lawns at Cliveden with Christine Keeler - played by 21 year-old Charlotte Spencer (with whom Eyre worked ten years ago on Mary Poppins; the irony of her graduation to a world of pimps and orgies was not lost on him) - singing a gospel of sweet hedonism where Paradise has turned out to be on this side of the sky. Ward has invited Christine to his cottage in the grounds, but is not rushing her to the bedroom: "Do you bat for other side, then?" she asks.

So far so innocent, though the "Never Had It So Good" number - in which there will be naked cavorting - lowers the tone with talk of strawberries and licking (no plates involved), white and brown sugar, sadomasochism, stroking and pairing off. A rather severe madam - obviously the Cynthia Payne of the party — blows her whistle and off they go...

But tenderness returned in the fourth song, "I'm Hopeless When It Comes to You," an almost absurdly simple but very beautiful melody sung by Joanna Riding (accompanied by ALW on his trusty Clavinova keyboard) as Valerie Hobson, the actress wife of John Profumo, at the moment when Profumo confesses to her his affair with Keeler in the Hotel Cipriani in Venice, than which no setting is more romantic.

Producer Robert Fox and the Really Useful Company laid on a really good old-style Press reception, with many old sweats and key collaborators in attendance. Fox said that the whole thing wouldn't be happening without Lloyd Webber, and designer Rob Howell said to me that the amazing thing about Richard Eyre - whose fifth production this year this will be - is that he is so well organised. The two of them are already planning three operas, including two at the Met in New York, next year.

When I said to musical director Nigel Wright that I'd last been in this louche rococo room with my taller and better half during the Raymond Revuebar days he said, "Was she appearing in the show?" the cheeky rascal. And when I tactfully congratulated Madeleine Lloyd Webber on the recent run of success of their star racing filly, The Fugue, she firmly thanked me for not going on about it as Andrew was fed up with the horse getting more attention than he has of late.

It's interesting that all the publicity following the launch has zoomed in on Mandy Rice-Davies, who's fallen out badly with Christine Keeler, apparently; they're on non-speakers over something or other. There are so many ways this musical might have gone, you feel, still might, who knows.

But Lloyd Webber, who looks fighting fit after a recent run of bad health, seems absolutely transfixed on what he patently sees to have been a travesty of justice and a tragedy of his time when it comes to Stephen Ward. And no, it doesn't seem, so far, that they've found a rhyme for Profumo, or indeed for osteopath.