Stephen Ward, Aldwych theatre, review: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s never had it so... laboured

First night: Aldwych theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Andrew Lloyd Webber's crusading new musical proposes that the chief victim of the Profumo scandal of 1963 was not the disgraced Minister for War but Stephen Ward, the fashionable osteopath who introduced him to Christine Keeler.

As the Tory government tottered, the vengeful Establishment made a scapegoat of the sexually permissive Ward, who was framed on trumped-up "vice" charges and driven to taking a fatal overdose on the last day of what was virtually a show trial.

This uneven musical play, with a book by Christopher Hampton and sometimes clod-hopping lyrics by Don Black, puts Alexander Hanson's louche, beautifully sung Ward centre stage as narrator and protagonist and lets him mount his own defence. With framing scenes in the Blackpool Chamber of Horrors where he wound up a waxwork, he shows us how he became, in the words of the hypnotically sinuous first number, "a human sacrifice".

The show rather labours the contrast between the "manipulation" of osteopathy and of chicanery. "I stretch limbs while they stretch the truth," sings Ward, surveying the scheming habitués of Murray's Club (Lord Boothby, the Kray twins et al). "Manipulation, that’s the technique... This conversation must not leak," declares the Home Secretary at the disgraceful meeting with the heads of MI5 and the Met where they plot to silence Ward by pinning a crime on him.

The wordplay sounds a tad forced. There's a crude cartoony vigour, though, to the scenes in which News of the World hacks and dodgy detectives try to pervert the course of justice by brandishing chequebooks at Charlotte Spencer’s pert, damaged Keeler and threats at the unimpressed, resilient Mandy Rice-Davies (Charlotte Blackledge).

Neither Lord Astor, Ward's Cliveden landlord, nor Profumo was called as a witness at the trial, but Richard Eyre's eloquent production brings back the actors who play these fairweather friends (Anthony Calf and Daniel Flynn) as, respectively, prosecuting counsel and shamelessly hostile judge. Documentary footage of the heaving crowd outside the Old Bailey intensifies the lynch-mob atmosphere.

Lloyd Webber's eclectic score has its witty touches and the odd surge of poignancy. At a toffs' S&M orgy, the clipped tones of “ You’ve never had it so good/You’ve never had it so often” ironically recall a rather more sedate gathering: My Fair Lady’s “ Ascot Gavotte”.

But in the process of laudably trying to clear Ward’s name, the show runs the risk of sanitising him. His platonic relationship with Keeler is romanticised in a way that downplays the seedy voyeurism and his use of the girl as bait. At the end, as he swallows handfuls of pills, he is still proclaiming that "I invented a new way of life" and "All I ever cared about was simply being kind." But such is the dignity of his death that you are left disinclined to doubt these statements. And a little manipulated.