Monday, January 20, 2014

Well I would, wouldn't I?

My first theatre visit of the year is one that might surprise you Constant Reader, but then no one is more surprised than me either!

An Andrew Lloyd Webber musical?  The last time I saw a Lloyd Webber show in it's premiere run was SUNSET BOULEVARD, a mere 21 years ago!  WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND, THE BEAUTIFUL GAME, THE WOMAN IN WHITE and LOVE NEVER DIES have come and gone in that time and much is being made of this show being smaller in size and more of a standard book musical than is usual with his love of the dreaded recitative.  Yes it's smaller in scale and has definite book scenes but the show is a curate's egg that leaves an odd taste in the mouth.

I have always been fascinated by the whole Profumo scandal, that very English Molotov cocktail of showgirls, mendacity, politics, sex, deference, espionage, black drug-dealers, film stars, stately homes, mews flats, rich men in masks, police harassment and chequebook journalism, all exploding just as social attitudes were changing in 1963.  How many fall-from-grace stories in the past 50 years have referenced "Profumo" without quite coming close to the uniqueness of it all.

The case has any number of permutations with which to tell the story but Lloyd Webber has focused on the perceived patsy of the case, his titular anti-hero Stephen Ward, the society osteopath who was charged with living off immoral earnings but killed himself the night before sentencing.
Yes, Ward was hung out to dry by those who he thought he could rely on and the case against him was based on tainted evidence, but while John Hurt made him a sadly pathetic figure in SCANDAL yet the queasy nature of the musical can be traced to that despite all this, he is too obscure a character to be the focal point for the show.  For all his patsydom - and given his sympathetic treatment by book-writers Christopher Hampton and Don Black - Ward remains a frustratingly unlikeable and unknowable character.  He wasn't the pimp that the trial painted him to be but his vaguely unsavoury nature and slavish devotion to "his betters" means that the musical's attempts to make him a tragic hero slide off like Teflon.

I felt sorry for the ever-urbane Alexander Hanson who plays Ward as a charming social butterfly in the first act but who seems to fade away in the second act and become almost a supporting character in his own musical.  His eleven o'clock number - sung while sitting on a low couch upstage while gulping down sleeping pills - is a curiously bloodless affair which climaxes with the famous press photograph of Ward, being stretchered out of his flat in a coma, projected onto Rob Howell's curtained set.  This moment was held for an eternity as if to make the audience fully understand the tragedy of his suicide but as Ward has remained a slippery, opaque character that it has been impossible to understand, it just makes for a rather obvious stage 'moment'.
With such a large group of characters to introduce, some suffer more than others.  Daniel Flynn's Profumo barely registers and his fall from grace, after lying to the House of Parliament over his relationship with Christine Keeler, is quickly glossed over.  Joanna Riding as Valerie Hobson also contributes to the show's imbalance.  Riding is a fine musical performer but is given nothing to do but waft through several brief scenes then in the middle of the second act she is given a huge ballad called "I'm Hopeless When It Comes To You".  Yes she sings it well but it went on & on and as no time had been invested in her as a character, it simply hung around for a while signalling to us "Big Love Song That Has To Be In A Musical".
Other casualties are Anthony Calf who has next-to-nothing to do as Lord Astor but does it with charm and a deftness of touch and while Ian Conningham plays the Russian attach√© Ivanov like the Russian Meerkat from the ads he comes into his own as the thuggish police Inspector Herbert.  Something the show does spotlight is the way the prostitutes Ronna Ricard and Vickie Barrett were forced into making confessions by Herbert corroborating the Crown's case against Ward which gives Kate Coysten and Amy Griffiths respectively nice moments to shine in the court scene.
Of course the show should be titled CHRISTINE KEELER as she really is the catalyst for the events of the play and the show certainly showcases two Charlottes.  Charlotte Spencer has the right look for Christine and gives an eye-catching and wilful performance.  I wasn't too keen on her high-pitched singing which occasionally jarred but then she also suffers from not having a defining song for the character.
Charlotte Blackledge was excellent as Mandy Rice-Davies, but then she is the best character in any retelling of the story!  One of nature's survivors, Mandy was the original good-time-girl and of course set her own indelible stamp on the events when giving evidence at the Old Bailey.  Her statement saying she had not only had sex with Lord Astor but that he had given her money was read back to her by the Prosecuting Council who added that Astor had denied all knowledge of knowing her, to which the 18 year-old Mandy coolly replied "Well he would, wouldn't he?"  The sheer sarcastic cheekiness in the face of the might of the establishment is to be applauded.
I have made references to Lloyd Webber's score and I was surprised that for most of the first act I liked it.  Three good songs for Ward and Keeler get the show moving although "This Side of The Sky" is really only there because it's time for a Falling In Love song, which doesn't ring true for these characters.  These are followed by a slinky tango called "Manipulation" and then Keeler's "He Sees Something In Me".  Then it takes an embarrassing turn with a faux "Ascot Gavotte"-style ensemble number which takes place during Mariella Novotna's notorious orgy.  It's coy, juvenile and twee style is horribly old-fashioned and, for me, the score never recovers it's earlier promise.  Symptomatic of this is the first act closer "1963" which is sung by an exuberant Christine and Mandy - it's the only time the actual time period is referenced with a couple of desultory Beatles-style "Yeah yeah yeahs" thrown in.
The direction by Richard Eyre is certainly brisk and I can honestly say that for most of the show I wasn't bored but two long scenes rather stop the show dead: the police grilling their innumerable suspects which is followed by the lengthy courtroom scene.  Rob Howell's noticeably modest set was interesting to watch with it's use of semi-circular curtains that suggested the secret and shrouded world lived in by the onstage characters and Peter Mumford's lighting was as atmospheric as usual.
The muted response at the end was echoed by a seemingly hesitant curtain call from the cast, all symptomatic of a show that doesn't seem to know what it actually wants to say or how to say it.
What niggles me though is that while Lloyd Webber clamours his insistence of Stephen Ward being a victim of the establishment, he is also a vocal supporter of the self-same Conservative Party that sought revenge on his titular anti-hero.

Another thought that occurred to me after leaving the theatre was that none of the songs in Lloyd Webber's score were as evocative or as haunting as NOTHING HAS BEEN PROVED written by the Pet Shop Boys for the film SCANDAL and sung by Dusty Springfield.


1 comment:

flasebravado said...

I really need to see the Scandal movie. Had no idea Dusty sang the theme.