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Michael Coveney: Naughty new musicals and street theatre from Woolwich to Wiltshire

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The first ads have appeared for Stephen Ward, the new Andrew Lloyd Webber show about spies, scandal and prostitution - described by insiders as a play with songs - with book and lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black (Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard collaborators) and direction by Richard Eyre. They show a man in dark glasses facing a girl (with her back towards us) with no top on. Definitely not this year's Christmas family outing, then.

Publicity image for Stephen Ward
Stephen Ward opens at the Aldwych on the Thursday before Christmas, which will effectively minimise, or at least dilute, review coverage over the holiday period; which may or may not turn out to be a good thing. And it comes exactly a month after another Lloyd Webber-related show, the presentation of Barry Humphries' farewell as Dame Edna - Eat Pray Laugh! - at the London Palladium, on Friday 15 November. Dame Edna's director is Simon Phillips, who directed Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and the Australian premiere of Love Never Dies, Lloyd Webber's sequel to Phantom of the Opera.

Meanwhile, word reaches me of explicit orgy scenes in Stephen Ward, so the sinister-looking adverts are a mere taster for some juicy nightclub action involving the society osteopath in the John Profumo affair whose libertarian experiments, the press release claims, "blew up in his own and everyone else's face." Ward, who is to be played by that superb performer, Alexander Hanson, committed suicide on the last day of his trial at which he was charged with "living off immoral earnings."

His was a very different sort of hedonism to that indulged in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, his sweeties a ring of prostitutes including Mandy Rice-Davies (who has been advising on the production) and Christine Keeler, who has lately been altering her own real-life story about the extent to which she was involved with Russian spies.

Most interestingly of all, perhaps, is the fact that Stephen Ward opens exactly one week after Rupert Goold's production at the Almeida of the new musical American Psycho, based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel about a Manhattan serial killer whose secret exploits are in some way a terrible, satirical outcome of sex, drugs and narcissism in the 1980s.

So, are these two rival musical theatre pieces going to be about immoral indulgence or moral come-uppance? The contest should make for a lip-smacking, chest-beating, tub-thumping critical climax to the year, even though that all seems a long way off at the moment with summer and festival fever at Glastonbury suddenly taking over on the last weekend of June.

"Glasto" was the biggest outdoor event of the summer - and weren't the Rolling Stones absolutely terrific? - but in its own small way, my Friday afternoon brush with the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival was just as enjoyable.

With a dozen or so other hardy souls I assembled in the drizzle at Woolwich Arsenal, very close to where drummer Lee Rigby was brutally murdered in May. Our show, A High Street Odyssey by Inspector Sands, seemed like a signal that life had returned to something like normal on the streets around the barracks.

Or the agreeably abnormal, at least. Wearing headphones and carrying plastic bags, we "blended in" awkwardly with the shopping crowds as we progressed along Powis Street, guided by a distant, capering emcee, Philip Bosworth, feeding us gobbets of historical and architectural information through his radio mike: that McDonald's over there was, in fact, the very first one in the UK; the premises of Superdrug used to be a pub called the Shakespeare, with a theatre next door and there, high above us, was a Victorian plaster bust of the Bard.

We were scattered over a radius of perhaps fifty yards, but Bosworth fixed our attention on various shoppers and bystanders, speculating on their aims and agendas. Then the girl he spotted on her mobile suddenly threw the phone into a litter bin and stalked off, rushing in and out of shops, giving us a focal point, surprising the public, bonding with a busker.

It was the sort of street theatre improvisation that has been going on for years, but no less agreeable for that, and it was somehow poignant and instructive how our little charade seemed to absorb a real-life one of a group of policemen huddling round what looked like a witness to a felony that might well have been committed while we absorbed the recent history of the NatWest.

I didn't go to Glasto myself, but headed in that general direction towards Wiltshire for the weekend to visit my crime-writer friend David Roberts and his wife Jane Roskill, a financier. Deep in the countryside near Marlborough, we were light years from Woolwich, and the sordid premonitions of Stephen Ward, basking in sunshine at last and bolstered by the comforting television signals from the Wimbledon tennis and a bunch of old rockers re-living all our hedonistic yesterdays.