“Manipulation, that’s the technique,
This conversation must not leak”
It’s a curious thing, to take a relatively obscure figure, base a musical on him that is then named after him, yet leave a vacuum where his central presence ought to be the driving force. For all that Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton place the character of Stephen Ward at the centre of Stephen Ward the Musical, he remains far too inscrutable, far too unexplored for us to buy into the main premise of the show which is that Ward, who committed suicide after being made the scapegoat for the Profumo scandal of 1963, is a tragic victim of Establishment hypocrisy.
But for all Alexander Hanson’s sterling efforts as the osteopath-turned-social fixer who engineered the first meeting of Secretary of State for War John Profumo and wannabe showgirl Christine Keeler, the show suffers from making him narrator as well as protagonist. So he is lumped with huge swathes of exposition, made increasingly worthy due to a slavish attention to real-life events, as a huge cast of characters flash by momentarily in the service of telling a story, but leave us none the wiser as to what Ward was like as a person, what motivated him, what moved him.
His first, and only, flash of real emotion comes at the 11 o’clock number as he realises the hopelessness of his fate but even then it strikes a duff note of self-justification, proclaiming he’d ‘never meant any harm’ and that he only ever wanted to be ‘kind’. But this is to overlook the sordid nature of so much what he did as a fixer for the great and good, supplying them with fresh new girls and even if his relationship with Keeler as always platonic (as suggested here), there’s something uneasy about the show’s desire to canonise a dirty old man, to cleanse him of all guilt entirely.
And this hollowness echoes around Richard Eyre’s production, Don Black’s lyrics are often groan-worthy in their reach for neatly rhyming couplets, Hampton’s book rarely delves beneath the surface and Rob Mumford’s design underwhelms with its unclear projections. Lloyd-Webber’s score is blessed with some lovely moments – though the forced pastiches of novelty 60s songs unbalance the first act somewhat – with at least a couple of hummable melodies, but without depth of character to accompany the singing, it rarely reaches the ecstatic highs of great musical theatre.
A key example is in the show’s best song ‘I’m Hopeless When It Comes To You’, delivered gorgeously by Joanna Riding in a luxury cameo as Profumo’s wife but a moment robbed of so much of its potential because it is the only substantial contribution her character makes to the entire show, the attention suddenly demanded to this marriage coming out of the blue. Performances are actually strong across the board – Charlotte Spencer’s Keeler and Charlotte Blackledge’s Mandy Rice-Davies are good fun, Anthony Calf makes a convincing toff and Ian Conningham is excellent as a key character in each half.
But Stephen Ward The Musical never really does enough to enhance this story into a theatrical delight, too many scenes lack the requisite gumption and it isn’t always immediately clear that Lloyd Webber’s move away from sung-through material has been that successful – chunks of sung dialogue still make it through alongside his customary songwriting. For a show about a scandal, it feels flat when it should be racy, it plays it safe when it should be daringly revealing.