Monday 6 January 2014

Theatre review: Stephen Ward

Spotting a gap in the market for West End musicals about osteopaths, Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber has visited the Profumo affair from the point of view of the doctor who introduced the scandal's major players to each other, Stephen Ward. Ward (Alexander Hanson) had a fondness for attractive provincial girls, but didn't seem too interested in sleeping with them himself. Instead he saw himself as a sort of kingmaker of 1960s London society, discovering the latest ingenue and introducing her to older, wealthy, often powerful men. One of his favourites was Christine Keeler (Charlotte Spencer,) who had a six-month affair with the War Minister John Profumo (Daniel Flynn.) She also may or may not have been sleeping with a Soviet Diplomat (Ian Conningham) and when the papers made the connection the fear of leaked secrets brought down the government - but not before Ward, scapegoated as the girls' pimp, was brought down too.

It's no secret I'm not much of a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber's, but the first half of Stephen Ward at least features a few decent, if unspectacular, tunes, with a strong influence of '60s pop (perhaps a bit too strong, some songs sound a bit too much like specific tracks from that time.)

This is less the case after the interval, the web building around Ward represented by about half the second act being taken up with the same repetitive little ditty. This is far from the production's only problem though. Lloyd Webber's songs, with book and lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, make up a show that I could see having an interesting enough chamber revival in a few years' time, with an intimacy that might deal with some of its major drawbacks.

But in Richard Eyre's production at the Aldwych, this story of sex, drugs and Cold War paranoia is curiously anaemic. The show's first act is largely concerned with setting up the decadent life of Stephen, Christine and their circle - the net they tie themselves up in happens almost undetectably, making it easy to see how the might have missed the dangers. But this new cosmopolitan world of clubs and sex parties makes it onto the stage with a remarkable lack of sexiness. Admittedly, the setup of grubby old men and nubile young women isn't exactly tailored to my preferences (judging by this, the 1960s really hadn't got the hang of Butlers In The Buff yet) but for a story that hinges on Ward not being the seedy pimp the establishment paints him as, he sure as hell comes across that way - Hanson really doesn't seem to have got that particular memo. It's not until the end of the first act when Christine and Mandy Rice Davies (a likeable Charlotte Blackledge) sing excitedly about how they're going to continue to have a great time in the coming year, that I realised they were actually meant to have been having fun up to that point.

It's hard to make a set that evokes a cheap seediness without actually looking cheap itself, and Rob Howell's swirling curtains certainly don't pull it off, while Jon Driscoll's video designs projected onto them alternate between the nauseatingly jerky, and establishing shots that look like they've come out of a 1980s sitcom. With a cast including an underused Anthony Calf and Joanna Riding, Stephen Ward has moments that show this could have actually been pulled off, but a total failure to evoke what drew these people into their lifestyle in the first place means there's little chance to empathise with the way it panned out.

Stephen Ward by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Christopher Hampton and Don Black is booking until the 1st of March at the Aldwych Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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