Sunday, 19 January 2014

'Stephen Ward' at the Aldwych Theatre

Last week we went to see the new Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, 'Stephen Ward' and I'm still not sure what I think about it. If you'd asked me a few months ago, before the publicity for the new show started, who Stephen Ward was then I would've answered 'no idea' and moved on. And that's part of my problem with the whole show. Unless you're older than me or fascinated by the Profumo affair then where is the immediate audience for the show?

The Profumo affair is all about the top knobs saying one thing and doing another, of sex scandals and hypocrisy. Set in the early '60s as society, Britain and the world were changing, it is part of the whole sex and drugs thing. So far so good but why the focus on Stephen Ward as opposed to Christine Keeler or anyone else? At least I've heard of Christine Keeler. Now that I know who Ward is the portrayal doesn't really endear him to me in any way and, while he may not have been a pimp, he hardly comes across as a dashing hero.

The 'who is he?' thing is played on in the first scene when we see a row of waxwork figures of people like Hitler and out steps Ward telling us he's relegated to the 'baddies' room in a wax museum in Blackpool. That's where his once infamy and fame have relegated him. We then see how he met Christine Keeler and the story unfolds, mixing the great and the powerful with his ultimate downfall since a scapegoat is needed to bring closure. I quite liked the scenes in his flat with the wallpaper, spindly sofa and coffee table (someone has done their homework).

The songs all seemed a bit long to me. Granted, they're taking the story forward but they could have been shortened to reflect the songs of the time. Scenes are changed with a swirly curtain moving across and around the stage exposing a country house one moment and a nightclub the next, Ward's flat and a courtroom amongst others. Maybe there were too many quick changes? There's also a rather odd orgy scene with a comic song in which the old men get their kit off to cavort with the young ladies and with each other (farce anyone?). The scene does rather come out of nowhere.

The real oddity is the rather downbeat closing of the show with Ward sitting in his flat singing to us while swallowing pills with whisky and then stands up, dons his jacket again and walks back into the waxworks. Hardly the uplifting send-em-away singing ending you get from most musicals. That was followed by a rather lack lustre curtain call when it seemed like the cast were puzzled at us for not clapping more and louder and me wondering whether they knew something wasn't quite right. The back third of the seats in the stalls were empty and I'd got tickets half price so it's obviously having problems filling the place.

The cast were fine, led by Alexander Hanson as the urbane and gracious Dr Ward, osteopath to the rich and powerful. I enjoyed Alexander in 'A Little Night Music' (which I saw both in London and New York) but this seemed like a more black and white part for him and needed more shade. Charlotte Spencer was good as Keeler (and, as such, required to get naked a couple of times) and Charlotte Blackledge had a nice mix of rebellion and tartiness as Mandy Rice-Davies (who also reminded me of Joanna Lumley in AbFab every now and then). No-one else seemed to be on stage long enough to make a mark due to the continual scene changes. Except for the over-long police interrogation scene that I hoped would end sooner than it did.

The most touching song of the evening judging from the applause was 'I'm Hopeless When It Comes To You' sung by Joanna Riding as Mrs Profumo. She sings this alone on stage after her husband has confessed to the affair and in which she reconciles herself to staying by him because she's hopelessly in love. It's a genuinely good song that isn't really needed to take the narrative forward since we don't see her again but it was quite touching. I can see it being sung totally out of context which is possibly a good thing.

I still don't know what to make of this show. I don't think it's fully formed yet and suspect that we might see a new production in a few years time.

1 comment:

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