I very nearly did see this one, but it opened and closed so swiftly that I didn’t really have the chance – I wasn’t living in London at that point, so a bit more planning was required for my theatre trips. I must admit that I was also a little put off by a snippet of one or two of the songs that I heard somewhere; it may have been the early recording of one of the songs that was released prior to the production’s opening, so it wouldn’t have had the benefit of a full orchestration at that point to give it a little character.
Anyway. Why now? Well, for one thing I’ve been watching The Trial of Christine Keeler on the BBC, so my interest in the subject has been revived – plus Stephen Ward featured towards the end of the second series of The Crown, which I was woefully slow at getting round to seeing. This all reminded me of the existence of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Stephen Ward musical, the book and lyrics for which were written by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. It’s exactly the kind of show I’d relish seeing now as it really came across as a stinker, garnering mixed reviews and closing early – cruel of me, but I can’t help it.
On paper it’s a decent area for a stage show to cover; the scandal and drama of the Profumo affair is perfect fodder, and the early 60s an excellent period in modern history for sourcing music, as rock ‘n’ roll and pop were about to explode. However, taking a society osteopath as your focal point and not drawing on all of the musical influences of the time was a bad call. For one thing, unless you were around at the time or have a particular interest in the history of UK politics, the name Stephen Ward wouldn’t necessarily mean anything to you (you’d stand a greater chance with Christine Keeler or the Profumo affair) – so it must have been a bit of a marketing nightmare.
The cast recording is more interesting than I’d anticipated, though its reliance on musical theatre staples means it’s quite bland and largely unmemorable. There are some decent hooks hidden away, but they just kept reminding me of The Phantom of the Opera… The 60s wasn’t all Beatlemania and mini skirts, true, and most of this story does revolve around figures in high society – but the energy and dynamism that a bit of rock ‘n’ roll would inject should have been too good to resist.
1963, for example, could have had far more character – especially as it features Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies (21 and 19 years old that year) looking to the future, and hoping to have a bit of fun after the drama they’ve both endured. The closest we get to a recognisable 60s flavour is in Super Duper Hula Hooper during a couple of scenes at Murray’s Club (where Christine was employed as a topless dancer) – though the use of ska in Black-hearted Woman later on also provides a little variety, giving us a hint of Notting Hill.
From listening to the cast recording alone, it seems as though this was a show that initially had a bit of potential, but that ultimately went down the wrong path. As Michael Billington pointed out at the time, it could have done with the sort of approach that Kander & Ebb took to Cabaret and Chicago. Perhaps in the hands of a different writer & composer this scandalous part of British history could get the stage show it is crying out for.