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A CurtainUp London Review
Behind this story was Stephen Ward, a society osteopath who had sponsored Christine Keeler with the Cliveden set (Lord Astor's stately home) and introduced her to Profumo and a Russian naval attache, Yevgeny Ivanov. Andrew Lloyd Webber has taken this story as the basis for his new musical Stephen Ward and, unlike other dramatic works based on Keeler, book writer Christopher Hampton makes Stephen Ward the central figure.
Alexander Hanson has great charm as the society mover and fixer. He's a really smooth operator. Each word his Stephen Ward utters is designed to flatter.
The musical opens and closes in the Chamber of Horrors in Blackpool where a waxwork of Ward is seen alongside history's most notorious murderers. We switch to Murray's Club in London's Soho where Ward first meets the very pretty Miss Keeler (Charlotte Spencer) who is one of the topless dancers. Ward pursues her to her railway carriage home and charms her mother into letting him take Christine out. Ward is 46, Christine Keeler is 17 but there is no sexual liaison between them. Lord Astor (Antony Calf) has let a cottage on the Cliveden estate to Ward for a peppercorn rent. The time is Set at the beginning of the 1960s just before the sexual revolution grips and the student riots of 1968 talk about changing the world.
Lloyd Webber's tunes are pretty if somewhat reminiscent of his other successful musicals. Snatches of Evita or Joseph or Phantom come into your head and you find yourself wondering where you have heard that tune before? Does it matter that they are largely derivative if what you hear is pleasing? You decide.
The lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black make sense and I loved the wit of the double entendre song Ward sings about his profession as an osteopath and his extramural activities called "Manipulation."
The problem is that we don't really know what was Ward's motivation in securing these contacts and potential sources of blackmail. He could have been a spy for Roger Hollis of MI5 (Paul Kemble) and in those days of double agents and sexual dalliance,Anthony Blunt, the Master of the Queen's Pictures who was later revealed to have been a spy for Russia, was one of Ward's patients. Still, it's good to have a musical that makes you want to find out more about the real life characters.
The dinner party scene at Cliveden where a man wearing a mask and an apron and not much else (Julian Forsyth) plays sub dom games with a brassy blonde, is hackneyed and distasteful. However, it does contribute to the character of the very rich, privileged and powerful and the depths they will descend to for sexual titillation. Nor are the girls Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies (Charlotte Blackledge) very interesting personalities. Rice-Davies seems very attached to the slum landlord and racketeer Peter Rachman (Martin Callaghan) and Keeler, lacking judgment, embarks on dangerous liaisons with Lucky Gordon (Ricardo Coke-Thomas) and criminal Johnny Edgecombe (Wayne Robinson).
But this is Stephen Ward's show and Alexander Hanson's performance is very polished and attention grabbing. Ward comes out of it best even if his judgment is remiss in recruiting Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies.
Rob Howell's sets are enhanced by street scene and other projections which blend in well. But there is precious little of Stephen Mear's choreography apart from the Hula dancers in the Soho club and the orgy at Cliveden.
The trial scene where Ward is charged with living off immoral earnings is a farce and we feel a certain amount of sympathy for him as the scapegoat of this whole messy business. One scene has Mrs Profumo (Joanna Riding) sticking by her second husband (Daniel Flynn) the soon to be disgraced politician.
Richard Eyre brings his thoroughly professional directorial skills to this intelligent production about some rather stupid people. Lloyd Webber has assembled some of the best in the business creatives for this, which might be his last musical.
I was reminded of the 2007 musical A Model Girl(subject review). I liked that rather more than Stephen Ward.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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