Mention the name Stephen Ward and it would no doubt draw a blank response. But this society osteopath was at the centre if a 1960s political scandal which threatened to topple the government. Now Andrew Lloyd Webber has taken this as the subject of his fascinating new musical entitled simple Stephen Ward (Aldwych Theatre), directed by Richard Eyre.
We meet our eponymous sharp suited protagonist in the Chamber of Horrors section of a Blackpool waxworks with Hitler on one side of him and the acid bath murderer on the other. The figure comes to life to give us his account of his time as an avid onlooker at the dawn of a permissive new age. Ward discovered good-time girls Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies when they were working in a nightclub and introduced Keeler to the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, at a Cliveden party in 1961. Their affair might have been forgotten had it not been for the fact that Keeler was also involved with a Soviet naval attaché and was later violently attacked by a jealous lover. When all this became public in 1963, Ward became the scapegoat of the Establishment was tried for living off immoral earnings and took an overdose of sleeping pills before a verdict could be reached.
Nobody could accuse the Profumo affair of being under-explored in plays and films, but until now never from the viewpoint of the much overlooked central character who became the victim of a blatant miscarriage of justice. The new show skilfully balances comedy and drama and joy and sadness while never for one minute becoming sentimental, but instead conveying a strong sense of realism.
Indeed Andrew Lloyd Webber here comes up with a score Christopher Hampton and Don Black are jointly responsible for the lyrics – in a rich variety of styles, so the familiar yearning anthems are interspersed with songs of wit and fun. In the number You’re Never Had It So Good, Harold! Macmillan’s famous line about prosperity, the words “You’re never had it so often” are added and it is sung during an upper-class orgy in Mayfair complete with a leather-masked slave in a pinny and a whip-wielding dominatrix. There is a nod towards rhythm and blues in Black-Hearted Woman, an evocation of nightclub seediness in Super-Duper Hula-Hooper and the deeply moving ballad I’m It Comes To You, possibly the best song in the show.
Director Richard Eyre fluidly manages the transition from the tongue-in-cheek humour and lighthearted tone of the first half to the more sombre, emotionally stirring second half and the show sharply capture the mood and atmosphere of the time when formality, snobbery and deference were giving way to greater freedom. Translucent drapes and projections conjure up the various locations from Cliveden to Venice, and finally, the notorious Old Bailey trial.
Alexander Hanson is perfectly cast as Ward, exuding charm but with a hint of something less savoury beneath the outwardly debonair persona and he is exceptionally smooth-voiced. Charlotte Spencer and Charlotte Blackledge as Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies respectively certainly look the part and there is a beautifully understated performance from Joanna Riding as Profumo’s betrayed wife.
In short then this is an absorbing intimate and poignant musical which makes for a highly enjoyable night at the theatre.
Runs until March 1
Box office: 0844 847 2379Last modified: April 7, 2021