Review – Stephen Ward, Aldwych Theatre

Tuesday 17 December 2013

00713940 - 250x346When Phil asked Andrew if he fancied trailing along with him to the new “PG advised” Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “play with songs”, Stephen Ward, he replied, “I hope I’m not too Stephen”.

Phil, unusually, understood Andrew instantly. New cockney rhyming slang for ennui. It will no doubt form a regular part of our lexicon.

Hard to believe it’s getting on for 4 years since the Whingers visited the composer’s last show and inadvertently caused something akin to a minor rumpus.

But this in not the behemoth of Love Never Dies. This take on the Profumo Affair – following Stephen Ward’s part in the scandal and the common consent that the establishment used him a scapegoat – is a decidedly small scale offering by comparison.

We thought it looked a bit drab and cheap by West End standards. “I’d like to see my money up there” mused Andrew at the interval, wallowing in the irony that he hadn’t paid a penny to see the show. “I think you are seeing it” replied Phil.

Rob Howell’s designs involve an awful lot of drapery swooshing around with more fabric than the second floor of John Lewis. The projections are a bit indistinct against the folds of the material and there’s so much opening and closing of curtains one is led to wonder if it’s intended as a rather saucily appropriate metaphor.

For those who don’t know what happened, it concerns two good time girls Christine Keeler* and Mandy Rice-Davies (performed by two Charlottes respectively, Spencer and Blackledge which must have added complications for director Richard Eyre at rehearsals “Could you drop your knickers please Charlotte?”) who fell in with Ward (Alexander Hanson), a high-society osteopath, artist and MI5 informer. Keeler had an alleged affair with a Russian naval attaché (Ian Conningham) whilst also liaising with John Profumo (Daniel Flynn, brother of Jerome) the Secretary of State for War leading Ward to stand trial accused of procurement and living off immoral earnings and subsequently his suicide before the verdict.

Praise the Lord! ALW has largely dropped the recitative. It’s not entirely sung-through. Although he still can’t resist having some dialogue warbled there are considerable chunks of Christopher Hampton‘s book, especially in the courtroom scenes, which can validate the ‘play with songs’ moniker.

Act 1 utilises a range of musical styles including reggae, leading Andrew to muse that it was more akin to Joseph than usual, though Phil thought this a tad generous. There’s a nightclub song “Super Duper Hula Hooper” that satisfied our spesh act predilections as, unsurprisingly, it involved some agreeable hula hooping and another called “Manipulation” that rather wears out the manipulation by authority/osteopathy similie.

We did chortle at Don Black‘s lyric “You’ve never had it so good. You’ve never had it so often” performed against a backdrop of mild S and M, sub/dom shenanigans and a few elderly gents in Y fronts. The clipped delivery of the number, rather bizarrely, reminded Phil of My Fair Lady‘s “Ascot Gavotte” but this orgy is barely, ahem, racier than that. Bravely, the title of the final number “Too Close To The Flame” stirs happy memories of that other splendid suicide musical “Too Close To The Sun“.

Stephen Mear (who Andrew now refers to as Mrs Meers) provides what limited choreography there is. There are brief glimpses of notorious figures from the sixties: Peter Rachman, the Krays and Robert Boothby among others, leading to unavoidable explanations of who they are to assist those in the audience slightly younger than us.

The acting’s mostly top notch. Hanson plays Ward with a louche charm and diffidence and has to sing an awful lot which he does extremely well. Joanna Riding makes a big impact in her surprisingly brief airing as Valerie Profumo (formerly the film star Valerie Hobson), her rendition – after finding out about her husband’s infidelity and subsequent lying to both her and his peers – of “I’m Hopeless When It Comes To You” is touchingly affecting.

Did we learn anything? Yes, that Rachman’s property empire was based in Notting Hill, that Ward manipulated Churchill and Ava Gardner on his table and that he ended up as a waxwork in the Chamber of Horrors at Blackpool’s Madame Tussauds (the framing device for the show) between Hitler and the acid bath murderer. Oh and that tarts are like taxi cabs. In the early sixties the meter started running at £5 and each lash of the whip after that a whacking £1, demonstrating that the cliché “no pain, no gain” is valid, if you happen to be a dominatrix.

Phil had already rather naughtily titled the show Leavin’ Bored and though he was a bit ‘Stephen’ at the interval it wasn’t quite the case by the end of the show. It fits everything into 2 hours 20 minutes (including interval) which is commendable but it does mean leaving some of the rather complex events out. You might, like us, end up flicking through Wikipedia afterwards to consolidate some of the details in your mind.

Despite being an interesting subject, the whole enterprise felt a bit old fashioned and we came away unable to remember a single tune. Hard to see it finding an audience and it’s unlikely the rather colourless title will help.

Well, we would say that, wouldn’t we?

Phil and Andrew’s preview tickets were generously supplied by

*Did anyone else think Nigella had asked for “the Christine Keeler look” when she made her appearances in court recently? No? Just Phil then.



13 Responses to “Review – Stephen Ward, Aldwych Theatre”

  1. JA Says:

    Never had it so often was, I think, borrowed from a Private Eye headline. Still think I’d rather have seen Barry Cryer’s Profumo play, starring Danny La Rue as Mandy Rice Pudding.

  2. sfchapman Says:

    I sort-of reviewed it here:

    When I say review, I mean savage!

  3. Sean Says:

    This was the worst thing I’ve ever seen on stage. Truly atrocious.

  4. Nicky Young Says:

    I saw the Paul Nicholas version. One is enough in the West End (please). Let’s wait for Carmen Miranda next.

  5. ja Says:

    On a fact checker note, I remember from my childhood day trips to Blackpool in the 1960s, that the waxworks there were called Louis Tussauds, back then. The aforesaid Louis being the great grandson of Madame T.

  6. Sambol Says:

    ALW really does need to retire from writing this kind rubbish. The show’s only saving grace is its actors, who do as best they can with the god-awful, cliched, pedestrian script and lyrics. ALW’s music hasn’t moved with the times. You can still hear stirrings of JCS guitar riffs underneath it all – which were cool in the early ’70s, but just sound tired and lazy now.

    The ‘You’ve Never Had It So Good’ number is toe-curlingly embarrassing, both in lyric and direction. It’s like something from Benny Hill, but without the irony,
    humour or Benny Hill. The only half-decent song is Joanna Riding’s ‘I’m hopeless…’, but again, some of the lyrics and rhymes sound like they’ve been written by an eight year old, and it is only her voice and interpretation that saves it.

    The recent production of (the now almost 35yr old) Sweeney Todd makes one appreciate the genius of Sondheim in comparison to ALW, who, frankly, has had his day. Undeniably, his earlier musicals were masterpieces of their time – JCS, Cats – but ‘Leavin’ Bored’ isn’t one of them. It’s no wonder ALW is in the press almost daily calling to get the judgement against Stephen Ward overturned; one imagines that he’s perhaps desperate for the publicity driven by poor ticket sales.

    • graham clarke Says:

      You are far too kind to this cheapie musical. The banal score – the horrible synthesised “orchestra” – and the superficial treatment of the story. I sat them amazed at the awfullness.

      In comparison – “Love Never Dies” – which you were far too unkind too – is a masterpiece. Well written – well played – and extremely well sung.

  7. Ellie Says:

    I also saw the Paul Nicholas play Christine Keeler,and thought if was very good. I cannot agree with the above reviews of Stephen Ward i go to the theatre a lot and used to run the theatre club for the Organisation I used to work for and arranged hundreds of theatre outings so feel can respond to the bad reviews above. I am sure this will run for quite some time but shame Joanna Riding only in till May when going into the Pajama Game.

    • Ally_D Says:

      I’m pleased Joanna is leaving to join the Pajama Game as she is wasted in this production. She must get an awful lot of Sudoku done in her dressing room in between her brief stints on stage.
      I too saw Keeler at Charing Cross since I thought it would be interesting to compare the two viewpoints but both productions left me indifferent to the whole affair. These events took place before my time but I didn’t feel compelled to go and find out more or engage with ALW’s campaign.
      I don’t think SW will last very long in the West End since it has no pull for the tourist pound and artistically isn’t setting the stage alight. There are so many productions clamouring to get into the few theatres that aren’t taken up by long running shows that SW will probably be elbowed aside to make way for something like Kinky Boots, Newsies or a Scottboro Boys transfer (fingers crossed for the latter).

      • Glen Moranjie Says:

        Saw this on Tuesday 21 January. I was in the stalls – clearly a long way from full and I think that the upper circle was closed – not good as it was only a month since the press night. I left at the interval, not tempted by the riding crop and blindfold included in the merchandise in the foyer. Hated the play, not least the cringe making orgy scene.

  8. Sebastian Says:

    How could you? 3 stars for the bland tunes, dire lyrics and badly told story? Two would have been generous. Though I agree the s and m scene was one of the least erotic scenes in theatre

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