Andrew Lloyd Webber's most famous theatrical creation The Phantom of the Opera features a chandelier that crashes down over the auditorium of the Paris Opera House. By a tragic coincidence, the same night that Lloyd Webber's latest musical Stephen Ward opened in the West End, the roof of another theatre - formerly owned by Lloyd Webber - came crashing down, too, even as Stephen Ward itself tells the real-life story of a life that is being sent into a freefall of its own by being implicated in a national political scandal. It led to his suicide in the midst of a trial in which he was accused (and eventually convicted) of living on the proceeds of immoral earnings.
Those events happened exactly fifty years ago, and in reviving it now for his 15th West End musical, Lloyd Webber and his co-writers Christopher Hampton and Don Black (sharing book and lyric writing duties between them) have made a bold and fascinating choice, fashioning a juicy moral morality tale out of a real-life story but casting at its centre a mostly marginalised figure who had been forgotten in the more publicly alluring story of the two women Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies (both still alive).
Even bolder, Lloyd Webber has abandoned the sung-through form that has sustained most of his previous shows to write a show that moves freely in and out of song and speech. That allows for richer storytelling and more contrasting moods and textures.
But 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.
Keeler and Rice-Davies, played with the right alluring sexiness by Charlotte Spencer and Charlotte Blackedge, become mere supporting characters. Ditto the other characters, though luxury casting that includes Antony Calf as Lord Astor - at whose country pile Cliveden House Ward had a cottage where Keeler first met Minister of War Jack Profumo - and Joanna Riding as Profumo's wounded wife - ensures that they are played with more depth than they are written.
The good news is that Lloyd Webber's own creative powers are undimmed, and the score is the least of the show's problems. But director Richard Eyre, who once provided a far richer, denser guide to the inner workings of the British establishment when he staged the David Hare trilogy at the National Theatre, cannot bring this far slacker portrait to dramatic life. It simmers instead of soars.
An uncharacteristically cheap, unattractive design by Rob Howell which uses swirling curtains onto which Jon Driscoll projects different images to change locations, doesn't help.
"The show sharply captures the mood and atmosphere of the early Sixties, in which formality, snobbery and deference were giving way to greater freedom."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"... uneven musical play ..."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
" ... we never get to fully understand Ward's character ..."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"... like a very unsexy production of Chicago. The girls look great but half the cast really should have kept their clothes on."
Simon Edge for The Daily Express
"Ward is the narrator for his own story, and ... we get frustratingly little sense of what drove this complex man."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard