Stephen Ward

Rating *****
Reviewed by Sarah Holland

The Aldwych Theatre, London WC2.
Playing until 1st March 2014

A moving and powerful musical, Stephen Ward is a sophisticated cocktail of sex, spies and politics – for adults only.

Alexander Hanson is charismatic and sexy as Stephen Ward, the social climbing osteopath whose platonic love for Christine Keeler (Charlotte Spencer) still raises questions today. It is made touching and believable by Spencer, particularly, who plays the working class beauty with just the right blend of vulnerability and strength. The early days which took them to the naked pool parties at Cliveden with Lord Astor (Antony Calf) and Minister for War Jack Profumo (Daniel Flynn) have a youthful freshness redolent of the best of post-war, post-Lady Chatterley’s Lover Britain.

At a glittering nightclub filled with golden dancing girls, we at last meet Mandy Rice-Davies (Charlotte Blackledge), who steals the scene every time she steps on stage and the reprised song accompanying her first appearance, Super-Duper Hula Hooper, is so catchy I found myself singing it before it had even finished.

Lloyd-Webber’s relatively new partnership with lyricists Don (Diamonds Are Forever) Black and Christopher (Dangerous Liaisons) Hampton to some extent recreates the wit and political irony of his golden years with Sir Tim Rice.

The orgy song; “You’ve Never Had it So Good (You’ve Never Had It So Often)” is a show-stopping word play on Prime Minister Macmillan’s catch-phrase of the era. Performed at an aristocratic Cliveden dinner party, the cast strip off to the naughty lyrics and simulate sex in a variety of Bob Fosse-style positions. Alas, this has a tawdry flavor, but is in keeping with the evidence and the show moves constantly, rapidly on.

Set changes are fast, seamless – telling the story at a cracking pace. There’s a surprising variety of musical styles including ballads, show-tunes, 60s girl-pop and even reggae. The period detail of both sets and costumes is first class and the projected headlines onstage cleverly illustrate history as the music soars and the cast moves inexorably towards disaster.

Most of us know the story of the Profumo Affair which rocked 1960s Britain and toppled Macmillan’s Government, but Stephen Ward’s suicide is usually a footnote. In this, it takes centre stage and the second act explodes with the press baying for blood as we enter the House of Commons for Profumo’s Clintonesque lie. Soon, the magnificently staged Central Criminal Court of the Old Bailey towers above us and legendary quotes from That Trial are brought to life along with its most iconic images. Profumo resigns and his dignified wife, played by Joanna Riding, sings the best ballad of the night, an archetypal Lloyd-Webber tear-jerker; “I’m Hopeless When It Comes To You”.

As the establishment teeters under the weight of mockery, we witness a secret conversation I have no doubt took place – senior government officials plotting to frame Ward for crimes he did not commit.

A scapegoat carries the sins of the few in order to save the whole tribe. Human Sacrifice, the first song of both acts, turns out to have been a herald for the last song, Too Close to the Flame, a suicide note comparing Ward’s fate with the tragedy of Icarus. For me, this was the most moving song of the show, accompanied by stirring music and tears in my eyes as Ward dies desolate and alone – abandoned by his friends and slaughtered by a pack of bullies.

This may not be Lloyd-Webber’s best musical, but it is powerful, deeply felt and well worth seeing. Just don’t take the kids – there are too many naked bottoms on display!