Review: Stephen Ward, Aldwych Theatre ✭✭

Alexander Hanson and Charlotte Blackledge in Stephen Ward
Alexander Hanson & Charlotte Blackledge in Stephen Ward. Photo: Nobby Clarke

Having been a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals for many years, I was looking forward to Stephen Ward with interest. The pre-opening publicity indicated that this might be a departure from Lloyd Webber’s traditional fare. Ward’s story was interesting, and with the background of the swinging sixties provided a wealth of riches for the creative team to plunder.

However, somewhere in the baking process this musical went horribly wrong.

Stephen Ward was a successful osteopath and artist in the sixties. He befriended not only key establishment players but Soho personalities and more than a few attractive young girls who were introduced to his sphere of influence. Political affairs, ego and vendetta conspired to make Ward the scapegoat as governments became embroiled in a scandal of previously unknown proportions as tabloid papers came into their own for the first time.

It’s a story that offered so much but as a show Stephen Ward returns so little.

Alexander Hanson as Stephen Ward is one very cool character. He narrates his story and expresses his wonderment at having ended up in a Chamber Of Horrors display at a Blackpool wax works. Charlotte Blackledge and Charlotte Spencer are credible as Mandy Rice Davies and Christine Keeler and the rest of the ensemble do their level best with some very trite material. Some of the police interrogation scenes in the second act provide some of the most dramatic moments and I daresay you won’t be seeing a society dinner – come S&M orgy in any Andrew Lloyd Webber musical anytime soon.

It’s only in the second act that Joanna Riding manages to get Stephen Ward to take flight. Her magical solo I’m Hopeless When It Comes To You shows classic Lloyd Webber form, but alas it lasts for a few moments before it’s gone.

Stephen Ward is Andrew Lloyd Webber lite. There’s not a lot to commend this score. It’s banal, insipid and short on any of Lloyd Webber normal melodic magic. Its lyrics too are cloddish and far short of the form needed to make this musical work.

The repetitive score filled will ill-fitting recitative accompanied by what must possibly be the smallest pit orchestra to ever grace a Lloyd Webber production. It’s an electronic clunky mess orchestrated by Lloyd Webber himself.

The production design is predominantly elegant with a series of gently gliding drapery swiftly moving scenes with some generic projections of countryside giving a subtle indication of locale. As the show progresses the projections become more intrusive on the action but they fail miserably when they completely destroy the final moment of Ward’s story. A note for projection designers must include the fact that you cannot project text (in this case a newspaper headline) onto billowy drapery. A few moments of poignant silence became what seemed like minutes of awkward silence as we wondered if there was a technical fault.

Overall, you get the idea that Andrew Lloyd Webber needs Robert Stigwood or Cameron Mackintosh, to come back into the frame, unafraid to say ‘NO’ to a composer who has perhaps become too successful for his own artistic good. You have to wonder if Andrew has succumbed to a crowd of ‘Yes’ men. It’s a terrible travesty that a great show like Top Hat was pushed aside to make way for this poor excuse for a musical. At a time when producers are claiming there is a chronic shortage of theatre space for new shows, you have to wonder how this one ever made it in.

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