Stephen Ward: Theater Review

Nobby Clarke
Alexander Hanson and Charlotte Blackledge in "Stephen Ward"
Inevitably, with such experienced heavy-hitters behind it, a handsomely mounted production that motors along with the fine-tuned precision of a vintage Bentley.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest West End musical turns a notorious true story from early 1960s London into a lively but timid polemic against political and sexual hypocrisy.

LONDON – Sexual intercourse began in 1963, according to a much-quoted verse by the celebrated English poet Philip Larkin. It was certainly a watershed year for sex scandal in Britain, with the resignation of Defense Minister John Profumo in the face of shocking revelations about his extra-marital affair with teenage model and showgirl Christine Keeler.

The man who introduced them, a suave London osteopath named Stephen Ward, was subsequently scapegoated as a pimp in the trumped-up court case that followed. Ward's life was destroyed by the same establishment of hypocrites who had previously solicited his connections to London's sleazy nocturnal demi-monde of good-time girls, slumming aristocrats, glamorous gangsters and bent coppers. But his political show trial backfired badly, helping to sweep the stuffy old Conservative government from power and usher in the Swinging Sixties.

Andrew Lloyd Webber has made Ward the eponymous hero of his first new musical since Love Never Dies in 2010, launching just in time to mark the Profumo scandal's 50th anniversary. Book and lyrics are by seasoned screenwriter Christopher Hampton and frequent Lloyd Webber collaborator Don Black, making Stephen Ward a reunion of the writing team behind the multiple Tony-winning but legally and financially troubled Sunset Boulevard. The director is Richard Eyre, the former National Theatre chief with a long track record of West End and Broadway credits.

With such experienced heavy-hitters behind it, Stephen Ward is inevitably a handsomely mounted production that motors along with the fine-tuned precision of a vintage Bentley. Featuring a brief flash of female nudity, some four-letter lyrics and even a riotous orgy, the mise-en-scene is risque by Lloyd Webber's standards. But the show is otherwise fairly staid and conventional, relying heavily on stereotypical depictions of the uptight English, perennially obsessed with class and sex, fatally torn between prudishness and prurience. For these reasons, this polished mix of bedroom farce and courtroom tragedy may prove too parochial for foreign audiences and international transfers.

Nonetheless, Ward himself remains a fascinating dramatic subject. Played by Alexander Hanson (seen on Broadway in the 2009 revival of A Little Night Music), this silver-tongued sensualist with matinee-idol looks helped pioneer the sexually permissive climate of the late sixties. After studying osteopathy in the U.S., Ward built up a starry list of London clients including Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner and even Gandhi. He was also a skilled amateur portrait painter who mixed with royalty, an undercover informer for British military intelligence and a collector of free-spirited young girls who he introduced to his wealthy male friends. While clearly no saint, he was no pimp either.

Lloyd Webber and his team are working with familiar material here. Looming large in recent British history, the Profumo affair has already spawned dozens of books, an opera and the 1989 feature film Scandal, which starred John Hurt as Ward and Ian McKellen as Profumo. This year alone has seen two other small-scale London stage shows about these events, but both were poorly reviewed and short-lived.

Hanson's performance is smooth but starchy, relying on his dapper Don Draper suits to project the ingratiating charisma that helped make Ward so many friends in high -- and low -- places. His two female co-stars, Charlotte Spencer and Charlotte Blackledge, are both sparky and polished. They are also good physical matches for their characters, Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, the nubile young "alley cats" who shared Ward's London home and later testified at his trial.

Keeler's colorful sex life, which included dangerous liaisons with Soviet naval attache Yevgeny Ivanov (Ian Conningham) and Jamaican jazz promoter Lucky Gordon (Ricardo Coke-Thomas), eventually elevated her brief affair with Profumo (Daniel Flynn) into salacious front page news and an overblown Cold War political crisis. Now 71, Keeler declined to give this show her blessing, but the 68-year-old Rice-Davies has endorsed it. Both are portrayed sympathetically, albeit somewhat thinly.

Lloyd Webber's first solo orchestration since the first draft of Cats in 1981, the score is crisp and eclectic and pleasingly free of blustery show-tune bombast. The witty opening number, "Human Sacrifice," introduces Ward as a ghostly waxwork in a provincial chamber of horrors, wedged between Hitler and Stalin as he muses on his fate with bitter hindsight.

The songs that follow are mostly a mix of prim, bloodless romantic ballads and more bawdy comic numbers, which better suit the script's sardonic tone. But Lloyd Webber also ventures into period pop pastiche with the knowingly goofy novelty dance-craze number "Super-Duper Hula-Hooper." There's even a genteel digression into Jamaican reggae, "Black-Hearted Woman," which could have been awful but settles for merely being bland.

Accompanying a country-house orgy scene, complete with riding crops and gimp masks, "You've Never Had It So Good" is a rowdy music-hall singalong set to a tumescent marching beat with a lyric that milks maximum sexual innuendo from a famous 1957 speech by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. But the show's stand-out anthem is "Manipulation," a sinister fairground waltz that uses Ward's skill in osteopathy as a metaphor for other kinds of shadowy manipulation in the corridors of power. Nodding to Kurt Weill in its subversive carnival swagger, this swashbuckling number resurfaces in the second act with a tweaked tempo and an extra layer of malice.

Artfully deploying two concentric rings of curtains, the quick-change set by Rob Howell (a Tony winner for Matilda) does impressively versatile duty as nightclub, apartment, courtroom, country mansion and more. But like the accompanying drama, it leans disappointingly toward the naturalistic and literal.

Lloyd Webber and his team have resisted the urge to stylize or speculate, preferring to paint Ward's rise and fall in broad strokes and thuddingly obvious sympathies. Heroes and villains are plainly signposted. Policemen and tabloid reporters are sleazy racists and lowlife thugs. Government insiders and court judges are upper-class snobs straight out of Monty Python. Perhaps Ward truly was an innocent butterfly broken on high society's wheel, but a touch more psychological and political nuance could have given this one-sided sermon more emotional heft.

A more daring production might also have attempted to tease out the parallels between Britain in 1963 and today, with our explosive media sex scandals and patrician political overlords. For example, the muck-raking tabloid at the heart of the Profumo story, News of the World, was finally closed down by Rupert Murdoch in 2011 following a celebrity phone-hacking controversy with close ties to Prime Minister David Cameron's government. Fifty years from now, perhaps that sleazy story will inspire a West End musical.

Of course, Establishment insiders like Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Richard Eyre were hardly likely to attack Britain's current ruling elite with their latest collaboration. Instead, they have turned an epochal offense against justice into inoffensive family entertainment, an enjoyable but conventional night out.

Venue: Aldwych Theater, London (runs through March 1)
Cast: Alexander Hanson, Charlotte Blackledge, Charlotte Spencer, Ian Conningham, Ricardo Coke-Thomas, Daniel Flynn, Joanna Riding, Anthony Calf
Director: Richard Eyre
Book and lyrics: Christopher Hampton, Don Black
Music and orchestrations: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Set and costume designer: Rob Howell
Sound designer: Paul Groothuis
Choreographer: Stephen Mear
Music supervisor: Graham Hurman
Presented by: Robert Fox, The Really Useful Group