If you were to take a walk around London’s ‘Theatreland’ in the early nineties, you would find no less than six sold out theatres showing works by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Through two decades though, West End audience’s desire to see a Lloyd Webber show has waned – in the last few years, Lloyd Webber has created a string of commercial flops; Love Never Dies, The Beautiful Game, The Woman in White, the list goes on… So it is perhaps no surprise that Lloyd Webber’s latest musical, Stephen Ward’ has closed after a shorter than anticipated three month run.
Stephen Ward charts the rise and fall of its namesake, society osteopath Stephen Ward. Ward was at the centre of, and eventually became the scapegoat for the 1963 Profumo Affair; one of the biggest controversies in twentieth century British Political history. Stephen Ward deals with not only the story of Ward – whose suicide made him a reluctant martyr, but also the transition from the stuffy, ordered and enclosed post-war Britain, to the vibrant, libertarian and accepting modern state that we now know. Through the presentation of Ward’s ostentatious lifestyle, and his acquaintances with high flyers such as Lord Astor and John Profumo along with “good time girls” Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies and others, we see how Ward’s tragic story paints a thoroughly modern and entrancing portrait of many issues within the modern world.
The first mention must of course go to Olivier award nominee Alex Hanson, whose portrayal of Ward was spellbinding, charming, eloquent and ultimately, shocking. Hanson, (previous credits include Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar and Frederik Egerman in A Little Night Music) found a perfect balance of wit, charm and scepticism to make Ward’s character really something – Hanson’s ‘creation’ of Ward as a musical theatre character has produced a role which stands as firm competition to other leading male roles in terms of its charm and appeal. Hanson excelled himself throughout Stephen Ward, with too many wonderful moments to note here (!), it was his sung monologue, ‘Too close to the flame’ coming at the end of the evening that really hit home. Incidentally, ‘Too close to the flame’ provides a perfect microcosm of Hanson’s role in the show as a whole – top notch acting (as you would expect from an Olivier award nominee), faultless singing and ultimately, spellbinding charm.
The two main women of Stephen Ward, Charlotte Spencer and Charlotte Blackledge – playing Christine Keeler and Many Rice-Davies respectively excelled themselves to the upmost! Like Hanson, they both exuded wit and charm, with excellent pathos and a naturally lyrical presence. As a duo, Spencer and Blackledge are perfect; their individual personalities on stage complement each other effortlessly, this was most evident in the rhythmic ‘60’s style duet ‘1963’ where the pair bring to life Don Black’s witty and intelligent lyrics in a charming and thoroughly entertaining piece of musical theatre. Blackledge’s performance is even more impressive as it is her West End debut – what a wonderful show Stephen Ward will be for her CV!
A final remark most go to Joanna Riding, playing ‘Valerie Hobson’ – the wife of the unfaithful, John Profumo. Riding’s delivery of ‘I’m hopeless when it comes to you’ was mesmerising. Her emotion filled performance brought a real highpoint of the show, and also brought forward the incredibly intelligent (and well informed) book of Stephen Ward – this moment zoomed out from Ward’s story and reminded us that after all, the Profumo affair was a real controversy, with real people.
Here we must turn to the technicalities of the show. Rob Howell’s set for Stephen Ward was ideal; his revolving stage and clever use of projections, drapes and lighting meant that transitions were smooth and effortless – a certain bonus in any piece of theatre! The orchestrations of Stephen Ward (in its West End guise) are interesting; with a very keyboard reliant pit orchestra, Lloyd Webber has worked tirelessly to perfect and tone down the presence of synthesised instruments to varying degrees of success. This reliance on keyboards though, does not detract in any way from the show as a whole.
So all in all, I would go so far to say that in my book, Stephen Ward marks one of Lloyd Webber’s finest works. It really is a truly touching piece of theatre, which achieves that rare balance of wit and gravity. Why Stephen Ward has flopped in the West End, I don’t know; but it is safe to say that its closing is a real tragedy for musical theatre in this country. I am almost certain that we will see a reworked and rebranded version of Stephen Ward appear in the not too distant future, perhaps set in a more intimate, cabaret style environment, or maybe just a smaller theatre? Either way, we cannot be sure – would a UK tour and West End revival be too much to ask for?
A sound and very well deserved 10/10 for Stephen Ward
Stephen Ward has now closed, though the London Cast recording available from Decca now.