How much do you know about the Profumo affair? If you’re like us, then probably not that much. The name’s familiar – as are those of Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies, and, when it all came to trial, the judge was the esteemed Lord Denning. But Yevgeny Ivanov? Lucky Gordon? Stephen Ward? No, you’d have beaten me there, those names would have meant nothing until we’d seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical about the eponymous osteopath, who massaged the backs of the great and painful and found himself buoyant in the sea of early 1960s London celebrity.
One of the main criticisms I’d heard about it in advance was that, although it was a perfectly good show, who could possibly be its target market? Surely only the (relatively) elderly would remember those days and be interested in reliving those scandalous times? Well, judging from the age bracket of those attending last Saturday’s matinee (and bearing in mind that it was indeed a matinee, which may skew the demographic) then maybe so. However, that’s a real shame. It’s a timeless story – and if it were fiction, we’d be lapping it up. Sex, political scandals, celebrity and espionage – what’s not to love? And, of course, the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I’ve not seen all his shows, by a long chalk, but for the most part I find them pretty enjoyable. Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Phantom are all amazing. Joseph, Starlight and Aspects are all very good. Sunset – ok, Cats – a bit boring; not seen the others. But if musicals were football teams (and I accept that they’re not) I’d certainly put this show up there at the top of the Championship, looking for possible promotion to the Premiership.
I was really impressed with the story-telling aspect of the show. It’s a very well-paced, momentum-building book, and, by the time you get to the second act, it becomes the stage version of a real page-turner. The lyrics are not drowned out by the music (Rent in Concert take note) so you can hear all the words as clear as a bell. That’s not to say the orchestra don’t give it their all, because they do – it’s a really great performance by them, and Lloyd Webber has come up with some terrific tunes as usual – just that it all comes across as beautifully balanced in your eardrums. Structurally or technically, the only thing I thought could have been improved is the Act One climax – Johnny from the club arriving at Stephen’s flat with a gun and not afraid to shoot it; I guess it was meant to be an exciting moment to take you buzzing into the interval, but actually I thought it was a damp squib that needed much more oomph.
There’s obviously absolutely no doubt in ALW’s mind that Stephen Ward was framed. With worthies like Profumo, Astor and Rachman surrounding him, Ward was a comparative no-mark, who, with the benefit of hindsight, was always going to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. There’s a scene in the show where the Home Secretary and his cronies brainstorm on what trumped-up charge they will get the police to fabricate, nicely giving a new meaning to Stephen Ward’s “Manipulation” song from earlier. This develops into the brilliant “Police Interview”, where the impetus to incriminate Ward in any way they can, is blatantly, ruthlessly and unsettlingly hilariously portrayed. All this, and a superb scene with News of the World journalists (whatever became of that responsible and newsworthy organ?) where they encourage Christine to “give us something juicy” – the plot may be in the 1960s but the subject matter is as relevant today as ever.
Alexander Hanson is fantastic as Ward; this is the first time we’ve seen him since his excellent Captain von Trapp in the Palladium’s Sound of Music a few years ago. Manipulative, but manipulable too; attracted to the ladies in a determined, confident way; displaying an air of quiet authority that ends up being just a little too quiet to save himself. And musically, he’s great; an outstanding, rich, clear voice and an interpretation of Don Black’s lyrics that make you feel really sorry for him. The bizarre thing is that, of all the people in the show, Ward is the one who has really done nothing wrong; just having a taste for the highlife and a liking for a varied array of ladies – there’s nothing illegal about that.
Charlotte Spencer gives a great performance as Christine Keeler, the very young dancer at Murray’s Cabaret Club – I’m sure I remember adverts for that club in Palladium theatre programmes from the 60s and 70s – who catches Ward’s eye and doesn’t resist his advances, but with whom, for whatever reason, he apparently doesn’t actually have a relationship – he just installs her in his flat. She’s an excellent singer, looks great, and over the course of the show develops from rough-edged teenager to a more sophisticated, and much more experienced, woman. Charlotte Blackledge’s Mandy Rice-Davies is a more outgoing, back-chatty girl, full of fun and cheek and it’s no surprise Rachman would have shown an interest in her; or indeed, Ward. Interestingly, the real Mandy Rice-Davies apparently advised during the creative process of the show, which lends the plot additional veracity.
There’s also a brilliant turn by Joanna Riding as Valerie Hobson (Lady Profumo) standing by her man in best Tammy Wynette fashion, both when she thinks he has been falsely accused of having an affair with Christine Keeler, and when she knows it is true. Profumo must have been one of the luckiest men alive to have a high profile affair like that and suffer the vengeance of his wife for no more than about thirty seconds. Miss Riding’s performance of “I’m Hopeless when it comes to you” is probably the musical highlight of the show. Anthony Calf, who can always be relied upon to provide great support in any cast, is a very chummy and friendly Lord Astor, so that the scene where he distances himself from Ward because the heat is on, has a much greater impact and you realise what a cowardly toe-rag Astor is. And I really loved the double act of Ian Conningham and Christopher Howell as the two bent coppers intimidating their way through their interrogations. But the whole cast is excellent, and the big set pieces like the rather posh orgy and the courtroom scene work extremely well.
At the end of the day it’s Stephen Ward’s story, his good times and his tragic ending; the show completely revolves around him and ends as it begins with his bizarrely featuring in the Chamber of Horrors at Blackpool. Alexander Hanson gives the stand-out performance required for this heavy role. Pre-show warnings advise that it’s not for the easily offended; to be honest I think you’d have to be very easily offended indeed to get upset by its content. It’s an excellent show and I would really recommend it!