Here’s the mystery surrounding Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new tuner “Stephen Ward”: How could the fallout from Britain’s most notorious real-life sex-and-politics scandal have been turned into something so flaccid? The cast do their level best and sing well but neither the meandering, below-par songs nor the slack storytelling create tension. Prior to opening, there was much internet chatter about the undramatic nature of the title. Sadly, lack of drama turns out to be the hallmark of the show.
Set at the beginning of the 1960s, the tuner plods through the quasi-rise and suspicious fall of Stephen Ward (Alexander Hanson), portrait painter and osteopath to clients rich and famous enough to include Winston Churchill and Ava Gardner. Smooth-talking, middle-aged Ward’s fondness for young women finds him befriending 18-year-old showgirl Christine Keeler (Charlotte Spencer) whom he whisks away to parties at Cliveden, the vast country house belonging to Lord Astor (Anthony Calf,) one of the highest members of the English aristocracy.
Keeler, allegedly sleeping with a Russian naval attache who may have been a spy, now begins a simultaneous affair with married John Profumo (nicely gruff Daniel Flynn) government Secretary of State for War. Under questioning, Profumo lies to Parliament about his relationship but when Keeler’s subsequent relationship with two gangster brothers turns both violent and public, the Profumo story breaks. In the now legendary ensuing scandal, Profumo is forced to resign, leading indirectly to the Conservative government losing the next general election.
The opening number “Human Sacrifice” — built from the much-repeated, Prokofiev-tinged, minor-key main theme — announces the show’s viewpoint, i.e. the hypocrisy of the Establishment. In the slightly more ambitious second act, senior figures are shown taking the decision to silence Ward. Policemen intimidate Keeler and all Ward’s associates and raise a highly questionable court case against him for living off immoral earnings. Ultimately, with the infamous trial turning against him, Ward resorts to desperate measures.
Given the mix of sex, social-climbing, snobbery, guns and government, there was a huge amount at stake. But it never feels like that on stage. For the bulk of the show, fully-fledged drama is replaced with Ward’s sung narration that neuters everything into an “And then…” litany of near-ceaseless exposition. With a neverending arrival of new characters important to events, it’s unsurprising that Lloyd Webber’s score and Christopher Hampton’s book resort to this voiceover-style narration, but it’s damaging to the attempt to grip audiences.
With so many characters, few given more stage time than a name-check plus whatever action is necessary, the result feels like watching the treatment rather than the drama. As Profumo’s long-suffering wife, West End favorite Joanna Riding pops up as a minor character in one brief scene, before reappearing in another in Venice where Profumo admits to his affair. She then promptly sings “I’m Hopeless When It Comes To You.” Don Black’s lyric is cliched and the attractive ballad is uninvolving because its sentiment is wholly unearned. For this and other scenes to have meaning, you need to know the backstory, something only possible for audience members over sixty years old. Younger audiences are likely to be left baffled.
Not even Ward and Keeler’s pivotal relationship yields musical opportunities for passionate singing, since the they were never in love, merely fond of one another when it suited them.
With so few linchpin scenes around which to build or punctuate the flow, there’s little helmer Richard Eyre can do to up the pace. And with so little engagement, it’s hard not to notice how visually insipid the production is with multiple locations set up chiefly by projections that look worryingly blurry on drab floor-length drapes on either side of a curtained-off inner stage. The first nightclub scene with dancers wiggling and singing “Super-Duper Hula-Hooper” clearly pastiches Sixties novelty numbers and Lloyd Webber’s orchestrations echo the period, but most of the atmosphere comes from Howell’s costumes and the wigs that nail the Sixties period with precision.
Alexander Hanson imbues Ward with nicely judged ease and sleaze and Charlotte Spencer brings a sharp-edged degree of ambition and petulance to Keeler.
With the prosecution haranguing Ward and the judge clearly biased, the climatic trial scene finally raises the temperature via the constantly restated main theme, although Lloyd Webber’s doesn’t make a strong case for musical theater as the ideal way of dramatizing detailed argument and the cut-and-thrust of cross-examination.
The show’s other stumbling block is its tone, as evidenced by the sex-party scene. The martial, upper-class crispness of the “Ascot Gavotte”-style song “You’ve Never Had It So Good (You’ve never had it so often)” wants to be a witty counterbalance to the S&M activities displayed but the staging is so unconvincing and un-erotic that the contrast goes for nothing. And when the “f” word is used twice in subsequent scenes, it feels like a sudden jolt of reality. It makes you realize everything else is sanitized and safe. In the story of a fatal miscarriage of justice entirely predicated on risky sex, that has to be seen as a failure.
Songs: “Human Sacrifice,” “Super-Dooper Hula-Hooper,” “When You Get To Know Me,” “You’re So Very Clever To Have Found This,” “This Side Of The Sky,” “Super-Duper Hula Hooper” (reprise), “Manipulation” “He Sees Something In Me,” ‘You’ve Never Had It So Good,” “Black-Hearted Woman,” “Mother Russia,” “While We Can,” “Love Nest,” “Freedom Means The World To Me,” “1963,” ‘Human Sacrficie,” (reprise), “Give Us Something Juicy,” “Profumo’s House,” ‘Manipulation” (reprise), “The Police Interview,” “I’m Hopeless When It Comes To you,” “The Arrest,” ‘The Trial,” “Too Close To The Flame,” “Final Scene.”