With an opening number entitled “Human Sacrifice”, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical (book and lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black) sets out its stall immediately. The sacrifice in question is Stephen Ward, socialite and osteopath to the influential, who found himself at the centre of the Profumo affair, the sex-and-power scandal that rocked Britain in 1963. Ward was tried for living off immoral earnings and took an overdose while the jury was deliberating. Fifty years later, Lloyd Webber suggests that Ward was a scapegoat, his trial cooked up to draw the heat from the Establishment. It’s a bold subject for a musical and a fascinating story from a shifting period, involving sex, politics, cold war paranoia, the class structure and the social upheaval of the 1960s. Yet the show proves a strangely tepid affair.
The story is told in flashback with Ward acting as narrator, explaining how he met the Soho dancer Christine Keeler, how he introduced her to both secretary of state for war, John Profumo, and Russian naval attaché, Yevgeny Ivanov, and how the press found out. One difficulty is that neither the script nor the episodic structure brings us any nearer to understanding Ward. Alexander Hanson, suave and charming, holds the stage and delivers his solos with wry anguish, but he has no detail or depth of character to go on. The result is a huge amount of exposition and little real drama. Some of the dialogue is weirdly stiff and too many characters never rise above stereotype.
In fact, the character who makes the most emotional connection with the audience is the minister’s wife, whose sad solo, beautifully delivered by Joanna Riding, is really touching. Charlotte Spencer as Christine Keeler and Charlotte Blackledge as Mandy Rice-Davies are both exquisitely pretty and bring youthful defiance to their characters. Richard Eyre directs with fluency and humour and Rob Howell’s simple, curtained set keeps things moving.
Lloyd Webber creates a musical collage of the period, peppered with witty pastiche. Ward and Keeler’s wistful duet “This Side of the Sky” has a lovely, lilting melody, while “You’ve Never Had it so Good” drolly combines the clipped delivery of the “Ascot Gavotte” in My Fair Lady with a toffs’ orgy (writhing choreography by Stephen Mear). There’s such potential in this collision of wealth and sleaze, power and permissiveness, and it is brave to tackle it in musical form, but for all its good moments, this is an oddly flat show.