Theatre Review: Stephen Ward

Date Posted: 20/12/2013

Stephen Ward was at the centre of a sex scandal that brought down the minister for war John Profumo and destabilised the UK government in 1963. To the surprise of many Andrew Lloyd Webber has staged a musical about him and the events which shook the establishment. Philip Graham went to the Aldwych Theatre to find out more.

Only twice have I been sent by Group Leisure to review a major new West End theatre production when I have actually thought, how on earth will it be possible for this story to be told on stage as a musical? One of those is the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Stephen Ward; the other was a musical called Billy Elliot. I wonder what ever happened to that one?

When I wrote up Billy Elliot I was full of praise for an outstanding new musical which I thoroughly enjoyed as a breath of fresh air. As I write this, the day after seeing Stephen Ward, I am in a more reflective mood, but nonetheless still positive about a musical which - despite the fact that it certainly challenges current convention - I will also describe as a welcome breath of fresh air.

When I talk about convention, I am thinking about the current fashion and style of many West End productions these days. Let’s face it, there is a strong appetite for ‘happy clappy’ bubble-gum type musicals, most of which do not require too much concentration. For many theatre goers these are thoroughly enjoyable - and why not!

In contrast I think it fair to say that Stephen Ward does not fall into the bubble-gum category - not by a long chalk. I would describe it as an ‘intelligent musical’ and one particularly enjoyable element for me was the high standard of acting, which is a cut above many musicals I have seen.

In fact, I understand that many of its excellent cast were selected primarily because of their acting ability rather than singing ability. This does not detract as a musical however, and the lead players all put in strong performances, both as actors and singers.

You get comedy of course, some of it incisive and biting and, as you would expect, anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber has to be taken seriously from a musical perspective.

Alexander Hanson as Stephen Ward was quite brilliant, Charlotte Spencer as Christine Keeler and Charlotte Blackledge as Mandy Rice Davies were also excellent.

For those not familiar with the history of Stephen Ward, which is more commonly referred to as the Profumo Scandal, the plot will take you back to 1963 and to the scandal that shocked society.

Stephen Ward charts the rise and fall from grace of a society osteopath. He was a friend to film stars, spies, models, government ministers and aristocrats, his rise and ultimate disgrace coinciding with the increasingly permissive lifestyle of London's elite in the early 1960s.

The musical centres on Ward’s involvement with the young and beautiful Christine Keeler and their chance meeting in a West End night club which led to one of the biggest political scandals and trials of the 20th century.

You can expect some profanity, however this is no more and probably much less than a ‘15’ rated DVD, and there is some slight nudity. It’s all relevant to the plot and very much in context with the story and I think anyone finding it offensive would be in a very small minority. However, be aware of this, just in-case you have some delicate wallflowers in your group who are easily offended.

I liked the music and it’s one of those productions where a good deal of dialog is sung rather than spoken. It works surprisingly well. There is good pathos and the story moved along nicely with a most interesting set involving projections onto curtains, which was clever and which worked well. There is no doubt however that those who are easily bored may find it difficult. It’s a musical to listen to as well as to enjoy - with an emphasis on listening! Don’t go expecting to be dancing in the aisles.

Did I come away thinking better of Stephen Ward? Yes I did, and the story and its presentation was thought-provoking and in many ways revealing. It does no favours for the establishment and suggests corruption, hypocrisy, prejudice, exploitation and ill-doing going right to the top of both the Government and the legal profession. I found myself thinking that this was a story as much for our time as it was during the swinging 60s.

Personally I hope that Stephen Ward is a long-standing West End success. Yes it is different, and yes it challenges convention, but a success it deserves to be. This is a musical for the thinking man and woman and I enjoyed it.

Stephen Ward is currently booking at the West End’s Aldwych Theatre until 1st March 2014. Group travel organisers booking ten or more tickets are entitled to discounted rates for Monday to Thursday performances; with further reductions for senior groups booking for Wednesday matinees.

Photo credit: Nobby Clark.

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