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Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber must have known he had his work cut out for him after West End Whingers renamed his Phantom sequel ‘Paint Never Dries’.
The press night for Stephen Ward, which takes place on the 19th December, is set to be a similar make-or-break event. Either tickets will fly into online baskets or there will be a large population of upturned noses scanning the Arts pages of the major newspapers.
Stephen Ward – osteopath, socialite and scapegoat, is an interesting character to depict and he is played excellently throughout by Alex Hanson. Rob Howell (Set & Costume Design) begins the show with a series of waxwork characters enshrouded by drapes of curtain, with Stephen Ward tucked nicely ‘in between Hitler, and the acid bath murderer’.
What follows is a series of smarmy men, sexy women and a whole lot of Lloyd-Webber which, I have to say, I enjoyed a lot. The first hour or so is definitely the ‘happy half’; it swallows you into the fun and naughtiness of Ward’s society, with its plethora of perverse sexual relationships, before spitting you out to dry in the midst of the scandal.
The strong opening number ‘Human Sacrifice’ has fantastically clever lyrics, whilst songs like ‘Manipulation’ and ‘You’ve Never Had It So Good’ had me tapping my toes on the train home. The orgy scene was an experience to say the least, it could have done with more humour and slightly slicker choreography but the song itself was impressive and memorable. By the second half you have to expect some overlaying repeats of songs you heard in Act One, in true Lloyd-Webber fashion.
I thought the relationship between Stephen Ward and his ‘little baby’ Christine Keeler (played by Charlotte Spencer) was performed touchingly. She had a beautiful voice that I would have liked to hear more of, though I certainly do not need to see much more of her – the nudity in her first meeting with John Profumo was enough! Although the ‘1963’ duet with Mandy Rice-Davies (Charlotte Blackledge) was fun, I felt the juxtaposition to Act Two didn’t quite work and I would have preferred something more sinister, given the gunshots that end the first Act.
Crowds of photographers run onto the stage frantically as the curtains reopen, flashing and shouting, with Hanson remaining suitably suave as he begins to recount the final weeks of Ward’s life. The plotting scenes reveal the plan to scapegoat Ward and it is exciting to watch this take shape, but the police interrogations could do with cutting down. They are repetitive in nature, from the songs to the staging, and the following scenes in the courtroom have a lot more tension and suitably damning tunes.
I miss Ward’s emotions in this final Act; I don’t know whether I am used to crying for the Phantom, but I felt fairly neutral towards the whole situation, until the suicide. The realisation that he has no escape from the inevitable guilty verdict leads to a barbiturate overdose, which Hanson acts out superbly. Being in Row A, I can swear that I saw tears in that man’s eyes!
Ending the play by revisiting the waxwork figuration was a great choice that completed the evening. Although there were several things I would have tweaked, I think its a bold production about a controversial subject matter. It will no doubt get slated by ALW ‘haters’ and those who expect another Phantom, but the cast gave stellar performances and I came out ready to see it again!
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[None of these images are my own.]