Scoundrel or scapegoat?

“I don’t mind admitting the last place I expected to finish up was as an exhibit in the Chamber of Horrors.”

So far on this blog, I have stuck solely to reviewing books, despite there being several plays, films and TV events that I’ve contemplated doing articles on. I was going to stick to this rule, but it’s my blog, so I can do what I want! As such, here is the first theatre review for the blog – the shamefully soon-to-close Stephen Ward.

The Profumo Affair was an incident from the early sixties that shook the government to its very foundations. Minister for War, John Profumo found himself having to resign after details of his affair with Christie Keeler became public knowledge – particularly galling given that he’d already made a statement saying that nothing had happened. Stephen Ward, a friend of both Profumo and Keeler, became the one the government blamed and a plan was formed to bring him down. But it’s long since been questioned – was he guilty, or was he just a scapegoat that the government used to brush the whole sorry mess under the carpet? Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical tells us of Stephen’s life, and what really happened.

Ward, an osteopath to London’s rich and famous, seems an amicable man who befriends Keeler with, apparently, absolutely no interest in a sexual relationship whatsoever. He enjoys her company and soon she has moved in to his London flat, along with her friend Mandy Rice-Davies, described by many as “a tart with a heart”. The two girls are young, sexy, and fond of short-lived liasons with many men, a lot of whom Ward introduced them to. Keeler meets Profumo this way and while their affair is short, when it is discovered two years later, it brings skeletons crashing down out of the cupboard and people begin to lose faith in the government – including Prime Minister Harold Macmillan himself. The court case comes down to the question of whether Ward was being paid and essentially pimping out Keeler and Rice-Davies.

The musical is in many respects what we’ve come to expect from Webber and team – powerful songs, genuinely funny writing, a truly emotional story – but there’s also some surprises. For example, the very notion of the story is surprising – how does one turn a political scandal into a musical? It seems a challenge, but Webber has done it, and he’s done it very well. And as for him being twee? Rubbish. The first act includes a full-blown orgy scene with women in lacy lingerie, men in very unattractive (but hilarious) briefs and vests, and even one poor sod in a gimp mask being controlled by a dominatrix in leather. This was the sixties after all and, as one of the songs says: “1963 – we’ll be fancy free”.

The author and the actress...

The author and the actress…

Performances were sublime – a strong, highly-polished cast. Alexander Hanson as Stephen Ward was excellent and manages to portray the struggles of the man so well that you can’t help but feel empathy with him as his once-perfect life crashes down around him, despite the fact he seems to have done nothing wrong. Amy Griffiths was a strong Christie Keeler, with a great voice and a brilliant sense of childish innocence coming face-to-face with the real world too soon. Joanna Riding as Valerie Profumo is also definitely worth a mention, and her rendition of “I’m Hopeless When It Comes To You”, the song in which she forgives her husband his affair, is spine-tingling and typically Webber.

Truth be told, the main reason I went to see it though (as well as being a musical fan anyway) was the girl playing Mandy Rice-Davies – Charlotte Blackledge. Although this was her first West End show, and you probably haven’t yet heard of her, I have no doubt at all that big things are coming and soon everyone will know her name. And I’m not saying that just because I used to work with her and we’re still friends. She is genuinely talented and portrays Mandy Rice-Davies marvellously, with a real sense of fun. People who were around during the original events have all said that she makes a very believeable Rice-Davies, and while I don’t know if that’s true or not (but I assume it is), she brings wonder to the character. (Note: Charlotte, £50 we agreed didn’t we? I’ll take a cheque…)

Just like Ward himself, the musical was never given a chance. You can’t make a hit in four months (Les Miserables was slated on its arrival, and yet it is still running nearly three decades later – imagine the cultural loss if they’d shut it down) and it is shameful that the show has to close so soon after its opening. Granted, the subject nature means that it might be something of a niche audience, but I believe that everyone can enjoy the show. If the option arises for you in the next month to get in and see it, I think you should, but somehow, I don’t think we’ll have seen the last of this.