The Theatreguide.London Review
Aldwych Theatre December 2013 - March 2014
It would be really nice to be able to report that Stephen Ward is a great musical.
Andrew Lloyd Webber surely has at least one more in him, but this isn't it. Weakly structured, unable to give its subject the depth or significance it wants and, worst of all, far too impoverished of great Lloyd Webber songs, Stephen Ward is a minor musical too likely to sink without a trace once the ALW stalwarts have all seen it.
A bit of ancient history for some: in 1963 Minister For War John Profumo had to resign in disgrace when it came out that he had had an affair with a young woman, Christine Keeler, who had also slept with a Russian spy.
The go-between was Stephen Ward, a playboy
doctor who bought his way into high society by always having a bevy of
pretty and willing girls around him.
They weren't prostitutes, just the advance guard of the swinging sixties, but an embarrassed Establishment, in a last burst of Victorian outrage, trumped up charges of living on immoral earnings against Ward, who killed himself the night before his conviction.
Book and lyric writers Christopher Hampton and Don Black tell the story from Ward's point of view, presenting him as ambitious, high-living, perhaps a bit kinky (Not strictly a voyeur, he liked the girls to tell him about their adventures), but essentially just a nice guy having fun and helping others, the men and the girls alike, to have fun.
What they want the musical to be is a kind of morality play – healthy sexuality v. repressive and vindictive prudery – but it's just too small a story, and its central character comes across as too irrelevant a minor footnote to history for that.
Meanwhile, the simple dramaturgy is clunky. Having Ward tell his story from the grave is a cliché that feels like desperation, great chunks of exposition and narration are shovelled into a couple of awkward songs in Act One, and then Ward disappears completely from much of Act Two while we trudge through the establishment plotting against him.
All this wouldn't matter – the Phantom is
offstage a lot and one could dismiss Eva Peron as a minor footnote to
history too – if the score was prime Lloyd Webber.
But too many of the songs are just exposition set to simple melodies, too few set pieces that can stand on their own, and even fewer with the rich romantic sound we identify as ALW's.
Hampton and Black's lyrics are particularly disappointing, too often sounding like prose sentences shoehorned forcefully into melodies, full of extra stray syllables and misplaced accents.
The one best song in the show, 'I'm Hopeless When It Comes To You,' is given to a character we've hardly met before and never will again, Mrs. Profumo (a bit like 'Another Suitcase' in Evita), and while Ward's climactic song, 'Too Close To The Flame,' is another rich melody, it's thrown away in the delivery.
Elsewhere, 'Super-duper Hula Hooper' is a bouncy bit of bubble-gum pop, the joke being that it's sung by scantily clad showgirls in a seedy nightclub, and 'You've Never Had It So Good,' set in a rather decorous S&M orgy, is a salute to Cole Porter with its scurrilous name-dropping lyrics.
Director Richard Eyre and designer Ron Howell give things a cinematic flow by draping the stage in several layers of moving curtains, behind or between which the scenes smoothly change.
Aside from the showgirl number and a foxtrot for Ward and Keeler's meeting, Stephen Mear's choreography gets its big display in the writhing intertwined bodies of the orgy scene, which can't help quoting Bob Fosse.
As Ward, Alexander Hansen has a strong, unforcedly masculine leading-man presence, which is another way of saying he's stiff. Charlotte Spencer is pretty as Christine and Charlotte Blackledge perky as Mandy Rice-Davies, but I don't believe you'd miss much if you saw their understudies.
Joanna Riding as Mrs. Profumo does full justice to her big song, the one song most likely to have any life outside this show.
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Review - Stephen Ward - Aldwych Theatre 2013