So, a musical revolving around the scapegoat of the Profumo affair? Doesn’t sound like the best basis for a hit musical. But when has Andrew Lloyd Webber ever chosen to base his musicals on the ordinary? … cats, Eva Peron etc. I’m a fan of Lloyd Webber’s music, hence my inclination to go and see his latest offering … I’m so so glad I gave it a chance!
I do find it odd that Lloyd Webber musicals are referred to as such, I mean, he ‘only’ writes the music. In this case, the book and lyrics were co-written by Don Black and Christopher Hampton … huge props to them for managing to get the word osteopath into a convincing lyric! (for those who don’t know, Stephen Ward was an osteopath .. and painter …). And then you’ve got the Director (Richard Eyre), Choreographer (Stephen Mear), Set Designer (Rob Howell) etc. I’m always intrigued as to how all these people work together, I think Stephen Ward is evidence that it can work … the whole show seemed to fit together, it was simple, slick and sophisticated in a whole manner of ways.
The musical centres on the unjust criminalization of Stephen Ward as a cover up for the alleged affair between John Profumo (war minister to the government at the time) and Christine Keeler; a young night club dancer whom Ward took under his wing. It’s a relatively complex plot to portray on stage, perhaps easier if you were alive at the time and knew what happened (I had no idea, I’d not even heard of the Profumo affair). But it’s actually been brought to the stage in a very clever way; we essentially get snapshots of the story through time, as though the key ‘facts’ are being presented. I did have a little trouble keeping track of who some of the characters were, but it wasn’t detrimental to my experience! It was refreshing to see a musical that has a full and convincing plot.
To say I really enjoyed the music is an understatement. Although the score itself is relatively understated, I felt this added to the idea that the straight up ‘facts’ were being laid bare. My highlights were definitely ‘This Side of the Sky’ and ‘1963’. ‘You’ve Never Had It So Good’ was something you’d never have expected Lloyd Webber to write, but simultaneously utterly brilliant! I’ve had the cast recording on repeat since leaving the theatre, and after a couple of listens, the whole thing is rather addictive!
The cast, led by Alexander Hanson (Stephen Ward) and Charlotte Spencer (Christine Keeler), was convincing throughout. Hanson has the sort of voice that you can just sit back into, you’re never concerned that it’s not going to make it, he just glides effortlessly through the score. He played Ward in a very matter of fact but soft manner, which I warmed to, making the ending all the more tragic! Spencer was not disappointing in comparison; she wholeheartedly embodied her character. Charlotte Blackledge (Mandy-Rice Davies) and Joanna Riding (Profumo’s wife) also deserve notable mentions. Many of the ‘ensemble’ double up into multiple character parts such as policemen, judges and witnesses; although slightly confusing it was great to see them being put to full use! … Overall I’m not sure this show could have been cast any better.
Projections were used extensively throughout the performance, for once they didn’t annoy me. The set contained revolving curtains which the projections were beamed onto … they essentially put the next scene into context while we were waiting for the next physical set to be revealed. The physical sets were simple but sufficient to carry the plot.
Overall I would highly recommend any adult (it’s not a very child-friendly show) to take a punt on this simple, but exceedingly well executed musical. A lot of current West End shows focus far too much on the visual aspects of the production, this one goes far enough with the ‘style’ while delivering an abundance of substance … don’t miss it!
You can now relive the music from this production via the Original London Cast Recording*!