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Review Roundup: STEPHEN WARD Opens in the West End- UPDATED!

Review Roundup: STEPHEN WARD Opens in the West End- UPDATED!
Photo by Nobby Clark

Stephen Ward, which has music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book and lyrics by playwright Christopher Hamptonand lyricist Don Black, opens tonight, 19 December 2013 at the Aldwych Theatre, directed by Richard Eyre.

The cast comprises Alexander Hanson as Stephen Ward, Charlotte Spencer as Christine Keeler, Charlotte Blackledge as MAndy Rice Davies, Anthony Calf as Lord Astor, Daniel Flynn as John Profumo, Joanna Riding as Valerie Hobson, Ian Conningham as Ivanov, Chris Howell as Murray, Ricardo Coke Thomas as Lucky Gordon and Wayne Robinson as Johnny Edgecombe.

1963. The scandal that shocked society. Stephen Ward charts the rise and fall from grace of the society osteopath. The musical centres on Ward's involvement with the young and beautiful Christine Keeler and their chance meeting in a West End night club which led to one of the biggest political scandals and trials of the 20th century.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Michael Billington, The Guardian: ...much as I admire the musical's good intentions and professional skill, Lloyd Webber's instinctive romanticism sits oddly with a social and political critique...if the show is intended as a blistering attack on the British Establishment's victimisation of Stephen Ward, it is only partly successful. Alexander Hanson plays Ward excellently as a suave fixer who enjoyed knowing everyone and even imagining that he was a vital conduit for MI5. But, for all Hanson's commanding presence, we never get to fully understand Ward's character: his sexuality, given his strangely platonic relationship with Keeler, remains a mystery.

Charles Spencer, The Telegraph: Since he parted company with Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals have hardly been famous for their wit...So his new musical about the Profumo affair comes as a delightful surprise...there is also a sense of mischief about the piece, that finds this sometimes po-faced composer coming up with numbers in a rich variety of styles, so that the familiar yearning anthems are interspersed with songs of wit and fun. Several of the tunes are instantly catchy too...Alexander Hanson is superb as Ward - charming, witty and handsome, but with a disconcerting hint of something less wholesome beneath. He sings superbly, too. Charlotte Spencer touchingly captures the initial gaucheness and vulnerability of Christine Keeler while Charlotte Blackledge plays MAndy Rice-Davies with a winning spark.

David Benedict, Variety: Here's the mystery surrounding Andrew Lloyd Webber's new tuner "Stephen Ward": How could the fallout from Britain's most notorious real-life sex-and-politics scandal have been turned into something so flaccid? The cast do their level best and sing well but neither the meandering, below-par songs nor the slack storytelling create tension. Prior to opening, there was much internet chatter about the undramatic nature of the title. Sadly, lack of drama turns out to be the hallmark of the show.

Paul Taylor, The Independent: This uneven musical play, with a book by Christopher Hampton and sometimes clod-hopping lyrics by Don Black, puts Alexander Hanson's louche, beautifully sung Ward centre stage as narrator and protagonist and lets him mount his own defence...Lloyd Webber's eclectic score has its witty touches and the odd surge of poignancy...But in the process of laudably trying to clear Ward's name, the show runs the risk of sanitising him. His platonic relationship with Keeler is romanticised in a way that downplays the seedy voyeurism and his use of the girl as bait.

Stephen Dalton, The Hollywood Reporter: With such experienced heavy-hitters behind it, Stephen Ward is inevitably a handsomely mounted production that motors along with the fine-tuned precision of a vintage Bentley. Featuring a brief flash of female nudity, some four-letter lyrics and even a riotous orgy, the mise-en-scene is risque by Lloyd Webber's standards. But the show is otherwise fairly staid and conventional, relying heavily on stereotypical depictions of the uptight English, perennially obsessed with class and sex, fatally torn between prudishness and prurience. For these reasons, this polished mix of bedroom farce and courtroom tragedy may prove too parochial for foreign audiences and international transfers.

Elysa Gardner, USA Today: Charlotte Spencer's Keeler has a winsome but edgy presence and a tangy, bleating voice that makes her convincing as a savvy but vulnerable working-class girl. Alas, once Stephen Ward shifts its focus to the spiraling events around the unlikely friends, it grows more predictable...Other tunes nod texturally to the swinging '60s and even reggae, though the most engaging one -- despite its maudlin title, I'm Hopeless When It Comes to You, and lyrics -- is delivered by a relatively minor character, Profumo's wife, nicely played by Joanna Riding. Sadly, in spite of Hanson's considerable skills -- and rigorous direction by the estimable Richard Eyre -- Stephen Ward fails to prove as consistently affecting, as a protagonist or a musical.

Michael Roddy, Reuters: Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Stephen Ward" which opened on Thursday in London is a musical with a mission: to clear the name of the high-society osteopath of the title, who was at the centre of the Profumo sex, spies and call girls scandal that brought down a British government in the 1960s...From the opening number, "Human Sacrifice", in which Ward, played by veteran musical and stage performer Alexander Hanson, is shown in a wax museum display alongside historical villains like Hitler, this latest offering from the creator "Evita", "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera" makes it clear that the evening's entertainment comes with a moral lesson attached.

Quentin Letts, The Daily Mail: Director Sir Richard Eyre has drilled his troops well. There is a completeness to this show. You sense you are in the hands of master craftsmen. Did composer Lloyd Webber have to rummage around in an increasingly empty tune box? That would be a harsh judgement. This is, however, the work of an artist in his later phase, both shadowed staging and the music being brushed by a sceptical world-weariness rather than the vaulting, full-lit optimism of innocence. This is a powerful musical not about revolution but about defeat and decay and it is well worth seeing.

Simon Edge, Express: In the advance publicity for his much heralded show about the Profumo affair, Andrew Lloyd Webber has made a compelling case that Stephen Ward, the osteopath who took his own life while on trial for pimping, was set up by a vengeful Establishment to divert attention from the embarrassing ruling-class antics the scandal had exposed. While he deserves huge plaudits for that, the whole thing is rather less convincing as a coherent work of musical theatre...The problem is the dearth of appealing characters. Ward himself, impeccably played by Alexander Hanson, is a smooth-talking lounge lizard whose ultimate victimhood is one of his few redeeming features. You can believe his treatment was appalling without feeling very much for him.

Sam Marlowe, Metro: The Profumo Affair has inspired films, plays and now Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical. Whatever the interest of this well-worn tale of sex, society high jinks and political chicanery, the show, named after the playboy osteopath who became an Establishment fall guy, is mediocre at best, and at worst, stultifying. Lloyd Webber's thin, anodyne score, with its flirtation with tinny synths, often sounds more 1980s than 1960s. And while Richard Eyre's production is efficient, the book and lyrics, by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, are woefully leaden.

Alan Franks, LondonThatre1.com: This is a world away from the rock anthems of Superstar and the lavish swoops of Evita. We are closer to the territory of his Aspects of Love, with the result that Stephen Ward the Musical is often more of a chamber piece than a knowing spectacle...As Ward, Alexander Hanson makes a good fist of the tricky role in which he has to move from racy charm to crumpled stoicism and suicidal despair. Anthony Calf is a wonderfully watchable multi-tasking baddie as Lord Astor and Griffith-Jones, while the two Charlottes, Spencer and Blackledge, are all too believable as the vivacious girls whose own alleged sinning was a frolic in the park compared with the bad behaviour of the establishment. Stephen Ward the Musical is almost damned good. What keeps it from higher praise is the fact that it ultimately bites off more than it chews.

Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard: Charlotte Spencer's Christine and Charlotte Blackledge's Mandy look the part of swinging Sixties' good-time girls, and the fact they don't have the strongest voices works strangely in the musical's favour, given they are Sally Bowles types who are most famous for their capacities in a state of undress. The showstopper number, You've Never Had it So Good (next line "you've never had it so often") comes during a riotous S and M-themed dinner party. Ward, the onlooker, is the only person to stay fully clothed.

Theo Bosanquet, Whatsonstage: There are some memorable moments; the ensemble's gutsy rendition of "You've Never Had it So Good", replete with gimp masks, whips and dog collars chief among them. But, as the second act descends into a montage of journalistic intrusions, police investigations and the eventual trial, it becomes increasingly difficult to feel much at all for Ward's plight, let alone the raging sense of injustice intended by the authors. It's a shame, because there's a scattering of strong numbers, including the soaring ballad "I'm Hopeless When it Comes to You" as sung by Profumo's injured wife Valerie Hobson (Joanna Riding - who, interestingly, is signed up to star in The Pajama Game in May). And in an era of Leveson and Yewtree,Stephen Ward provides a timely reminder of the interdependent networks that exist at the top end of society.

Simon Edge, Daily Express: There are some fine performances, notably by Charlotte Spencer as the glamorous, gobby (and occasionally starkers) Christine Keeler and Joanna Riding as the steely Mrs Profumo. A better designed production might help, and I'd genuinely like to see this re-emerge in a more successful and perhaps more intimate form. But for the moment it looks like a very honourable failure.

Dominic Maxwell, The Times: Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical is an irate but over-informative attempt to precis the Profumo affair into a two-hour show. It's irate because Lloyd Webber and his co-writers, Christopher Hampton and Don Black, are out to show how, in 1963, the British Establishment made the society osteopath of the title into its fall guy. They argue their corner cogently, backed up occasionally - and distractingly - by footage of the real Ward projected on the giant curtain of Rob Howell's ever-changing set.

Andrzej Lukowski, TimeOut London: You don't go to an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical looking for subtlety or empathyÉ you go for singing cats, or singing trains, or singing dictators, or singing Jesuses, or singing phantoms. Ward is a fascinating figure, but far too complex and human to bear up to this brash analysis, no more credible or rounded than that waxwork Hitler.

Mark Shenton, London Theatre Guide: Sadly, despite the tender variations of Lloyd Webber's frequently beautiful and evocative score, there's not enough sustaining tension in the narrative that Hampton and Black have provided. Only the character of the society osteopath Stephen Ward is explored in any depth, and even then - as played by the square-jawed Alexander Hanson - there's only one note of victimhood, even as the score requires him to produce many more notes with his tremulously powerful tenor.

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