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Review: Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Stephen Ward', a Scandalous Musical on a Mission

30/12/2013 12:03 GMT | Updated 27/02/2014 10:59 GMT

While a motley crew of elites continue to evade, with impunity, their trials at the International Criminal Court, London's other monarch, Andrew Lloyd Webber, has decided how he intends to make a difference in the global pursuit of justice: to exonerate Stephen Ward, the late osteopath whose unique matchmaking abilities led to one of the most shocking political sex scandals in British history: The Profumo Affair of 1963.

I was fortunate enough to catch opening night of the highly-anticipated musical (with music by Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, and slick direction by Richard Eyre) on December 19. Celebrations at the Aldwych Theatre were quickly extinguished when the starry attendees - including Lloyd Webber and Mandy Rice-Davies, who lived with Keeler in Ward's flat - became aware of the horrific cave-in at the Apollo Theatre a few kilometres away.

Dr. Ward, played with intense charisma by Alexander Hanson, was among London's most well connected bachelors. He regularly hosted parties for political elites, and frequently befriended beautiful girls, including Christine Keeler (Charlotte Spencer in a bold performance) whom he introduces to John Profumo, Harold Macmillan's Secretary of State for War. Profumo's adulterous relationship with Keeler became the subject of intense rumours in 1962, compounded with accusations that Keeler - at the height of the Cold War - also had relations with Yevgeny Ivanov, a senior naval attaché at the Soviet embassy in London. As tabloids suspected Profumo was leaking military secrets to the Russians via Keeler, he had no choice but to resign. The Conservative government fell a year later and was replaced by the Labour Party.

In what Lloyd Webber is now decrying as a sham trial, Ward was prosecuted for profiting from prostitution, and he committed suicide by overdoing on pills. The musical - coupled with something resembling an advocacy campaign that reminds us Lloyd Webber is the best publicist in the history of musical theatre - sets out to prove Ward was, as Hanson sings in the opening song, a "Human Sacrifice". That scene opens with Ward in a wax museum standing alongside notorious figures like Adolph Hitler, firmly establishing the piece's hyperbolic tone.

Yes, it is an odd subject for a musical. And no, this is not the Phantom of the Opera - or Evita, for that matter. But Lloyd Webber's new musical is highly entertaining - perhaps the ultimate London guilty pleasure. There is even a raunchy scene at an S&M club. The cast proclaims "You've Never Had It So Good (You've Never Had It So Often)" and sings about how the submissive man crawling on the ground might just be a Cabinet minister. This song alone makes it clear this musical will never transfer to New York or perhaps anywhere else.

The only showstopper is the understated ballad, "I'm Hopeless When it Comes to You," sung by acclaimed actress Joanna Riding as Profumo's wife, the actress Valerie Hobson. Spencer is fun to watch as Keeler, but her singing on opening night was strained, perhaps due to nerves. However, the show unquestionably belongs to Hanson, who starred in A Little Night Music on Broadway alongside Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury. His portrayal of Ward from elite to scapegoat is alluring and smoothly sung. Rob Howell's design captures the glamour and gaudiness of the 60s. The second act is anchored by a trial scene reminiscent of the one in Chicago, though comparisons to that Kander and Ebb masterpiece end here.

The show mainly documents the events of the Profumo Affair, however this is not a complete telling, since the government will not release many relevant documents until 2045. Whether anyone, composers or otherwise, will continue Lloyd Webber's campaign is an open question. More immediately, it will be interesting to observe how London theatregoers will react to the piece.

Stephen Ward plays at the Aldwych Theatre. Visit www.stephenwardthemusical.com for more information.