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Theatre, Sport and the Effects of Fame on Success: A Feature on Alexander Hanson

23/09/2015 14:53 BST | Updated 22/09/2016 10:12 BST

On the 29th March of last year Alexander Hanson and the cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Stephen Ward took to the stage at the Aldwych Theatre for the final time, after a run of four months. On the same weekend lyricist Tim Rice saw his new musical closing, together with another new show, The Full Monty. 'Best wishes to all as we go down in flames', Hanson tweeted spiritedly.

All three had been received favourably by commentators and audiences but sales weren't keeping up and the theatre fraternity was given a stark reminder of the perils for producers of new work. In this age, originality seems a precarious premise if box office success is the target.

Lloyd Webber's last two shows have equalled his very best. 'Love Never Dies' was unjustly criticised, though it ran for 18 months in London.

Few can explain why his recent new material doesn't have the commercial impact of Phantom of the Opera, Cats or Evita, but there have never been golden rules when it comes to commercial smash hits. Audiences have become comfortable with regurgitated work or jukebox affairs, and are increasingly wary about embracing the new, and so terrific new material is in this era underexposed.

The cast and crew for Stephen Ward endured all the predictable headlines from journalists, of similar persuasion as those depicted in the show's second act. They waded in to Lloyd Webber the moment they could smell blood, without much attempt to assess the piece with any balance.

My own day job is that of a professional athlete. I was world number one in squash in 2012. Luckily I saw this mesmerising show twice, and during a recent injury hiatus I was privileged to meet with Hanson to discuss his working methods and thoughts on Stephen Ward.

The live performance aspect of theatrical entertainment is a great draw for me. It's why I was inclined to partake in some (dodgy) acting at school and it's why I've dabbled with it again recently. When squash is no longer there, and my body won't let me play the game forever, I might need something to fill the gaps to replace walking out in front of 1800 people in a Commonwealth Games final.

The acting game does differ from sport in that it is all subjectivity. In sport, you are either good or not. Rankings or titles tend not to lie. Yet a show as strong as Stephen Ward was deemed to have failed.

It told an engrossing true story of political injustice through the eyes of a man struggling with conventions of the early 1960s. Musically rich, its portrayal of corruption in the places we should least expect it- government and in courts of law- strongly echo the iniquity Oscar Wilde suffered seventy years previously.

Ward revelled in the good life, the company of younger women and in the sexual diversity with which society back then was uncomfortable, and he became embroiled in the political scandal of the century. The show suggested that he was the intended scapegoat in the Jack Profumo affair. An osteopath who found himself integrated in to the social circles of the rich and famous, Ward eventually suffered the indignity of cross-examination in court, standing trial for pimping, which led him to end his life.

'Human Sacrifice' is one of the most arresting intros you are likely to hear, and was judged to perfection by Hanson as Ward, who mused why his waxwork in the Chamber of Horrors was next to those of Hitler and the Acid Bath Murderer.

It wasn't Mamma Mia then.

'It was a fantastic number', Hanson told me. 'The whole Chamber of Horrors thing: a stroke wasn't it? Really cool. It set you up wonderfully.'

An orgy scene in the first act caused a collective audience spluttering of Chardonnay when the cast effused: 'You've Never Had it So Good, You've Never Had It so Often'. The triple threat of catchy melody, hilarious choreography and suggestive lyricism made this particular sequence sidesplittingly funny.

Did it fit with what the audience expected?

'Perhaps it didn't necessarily coalesce with the name Andrew Lloyd Webber. It could be that it didn't strike a chord with the audiences who came to see it.'

Did anything else compromise the show's success?

'We shouldn't have opened before Christmas. It's not a family show but they wanted to secure the services of Richard Eyre and that was his only slot. Our press night was a PR disaster. All interviews were off, all photos were off because the roof fell in at the Apollo Theatre down the road.'

Hanson's performance in the final harrowing scene should have won him every award going. Eight times a week he would brace himself to portray a broken and brow-beaten Ward - friendless and betrayed by the system, necking pills and sobbing whilst singing 'Too close to the Flame', a soaring and heartbreaking song, without missing a note. To think this performance alone went relatively unnoticed is a travesty.

How does an actor frame himself to deliver that sort of despair night after night?

'It helps that you are on stage most of the time because you build up a head of steam. It helps to have been in the game a long time. There have been times in the past when I haven't got myself up for it, and have felt a lukewarm response. It comes to me analysing, as I'm sure you do at the Commonwealth Games or the World Championships. What went wrong? How would I approach that differently? I think when you care about what you do and there is a certain level that is expected of you, you just have to do it. Also, after quite a few performances you develop a technical way of doing it.'

'I am very proud of what we did. I would admit to the fact that it was flawed. I think it might come back in a few years time.'

Hanson is right to be proud. Lloyd Webber and his team made something significant. It is not always fashionable to endorse his work and people are quick to criticise. His tunes are memorable and melodic, catching the ear of the mainstream, and music snobs like to snub him. Some make up their minds before the striking of the first chord and refuse to hear complexities, the light and shade involved in structuring the music around the spoken dialogue, the balancing of recurring themes and the moulding of the piece.

Lloyd Webber, Richard Eyre, Don Black and Christopher Hampton, Stephen Ward's creators, are a team of considerable clout and let's hope they are not deterred from trying to express originality in what is an inexplicably difficult West End situation.

After Stephen Ward Hanson played Will Trenting in a fascinating drama, 'Accolade' by Emelyn Williams at St.James Theatre. He relishes straight theatre, but a fine singing voice has made him a powerhouse in the world of musical theatre. In recent years he has played leading roles in 'The Sound of Music' at the London Palladium, 'A Little Night Music' on Broadway alongside Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta Jones, and more recently 'Jesus Christ Superstar' in UK arenas.

Hard to believe then he is a relative unknown walking the streets of London. Some of his performances have been with famous celebrities who have a fraction of the background in acting he has. Does this bother him?

'No it's ok. It only bothers me when I don't get a part because they've chosen somebody famous! It's about ticket sales. That's fine, I understand the economics. I don't want to be famous, I love what I do. If you are good at what you do, that should get you work. I could do with being a bit more famous, so I could guarantee more work! I could do a certain job but then the directors know they could have someone who is famous who can also do the job! There are plenty out there who don't have a clue on stage and it can be a false economy. My wife (Samantha Bond) is quite high profile and we can't just go to the park. And when you're famous you can become a failure, but not un-famous. No one knows who I am on the street, yet there are times when your identity is bound by what you do and you want and do get the respect and recognition.'

I can relate to this: I move freely outside the squash world. I would never want to lose that, but after speaking to Alex I'm glad to know that in my game fame doesn't count. Your level simply doesn't lie.

'Before I was working with Superstar, my agent rang me tentatively to ask if I was interested in it (perhaps referring to the fact that it was with such a group of relatively untried celebrity actors whose talents were recognised in other areas). I said 'Of course I am interested!' I'd never played arenas. I wanted to do the show at least once. You're on this Rock and Roll bus together, and it was cool. I made good friends. It wasn't about me being the posh actor, there was mutual respect. I learnt from each of them.'

Hanson is aware that rejection and failure are a part of the acting process, and happily he hasn't been knocked off his stride since Stephen Ward. He has just finished at the Park Theatre in North London, where he played alongside his son Tom (his daughter Molly is also an actor) in 'The Gathered Leaves', and now he finds himself headed for The Rose Theatre in Kingston for one of the most anticipated shows of the autumn: Trevor Nunn's 'Wars of the Roses', a 'distillation of Shakespeare's history plays', in which he plays Richard Duke of York and Buckingham.

The last word on Stephen Ward might not have been said. It's not unusual for a later successes to have struggled initially.

But in an age where the same shows prevail and where our TV screens are filled with the same celebrity fare and familiar blueprints, the expressive and original seem to be up against it. Too many Stephen Wards and Full Montys are, as Hanson terms it, 'going down in flames' far too early.

Alexander Hanson will be playing Richard Duke of York and Buckingham in 'Wars of the Roses' at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, London from 16th September- 31st October.