LONDON Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Stephen Ward" is a musical with a mission: to clear the name of the eponymous high-society osteopath at the centre of the 1963 Profumo sex and spies scandal that fatally rocked Britain's government.
The show, which opened in London on Thursday, received mixed reviews, with The Guardian saying that "Lloyd Webber's romanticism sits oddly with a social and political critique" and The Daily Telegraph praising it for "delightful tunes, winning performances - and an unexpected dash of mischief".
The main characters, in real life and the show, are party girl Christine Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies, a vodka-swilling Russian military attaché who was one of Keeler's lovers, and John Profumo, Britain's Secretary of State for War, a married man and also one of Keeler's lovers.
When his affair with her came tumbling out, courtesy of the ever vigilant British tabloid press, it was suspected that Profumo in "pillow talk" may have leaked nuclear secrets to Keeler and through her to the Russians.
Profumo lied about it all to Parliament and was forced to resign, leading indirectly to Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan stepping down some months later and an election a year on that brought the Labour opposition to power.
The affable, Jaguar-driving Ward's role in all this? He was said to be the procurer and committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills after being forced to take the rap by the corrupt British political, judicial and police establishment of the time - or so the musical's book would have it.
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 such as Hitler, this latest offering makes it clear that the evening's entertainment comes with a moral lesson attached.
"Get up the nose of the establishment ... step across the line," Ward sings as he comes alive amid the display of wax dummies, and you, too, could become a "human sacrifice".
That may sound grim and "Sweeney Todd"-ish, but there need be no fear that Lloyd Webber - creator of "Evita", "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera", among others - has turned ghoulish and dark.
The next number is set in a popular London nightclub of the period, with showgirls performing a dance routine with hula hoops. It's there that Ward meets Keeler, played by Charlotte Spencer, and the seeds of a disastrous relationship are sewn.
Shortly afterwards, they attend a high-society dinner party in which everyone strips down to their underwear - in the case of the women mostly black semi-fetish regalia - and has an orgy.
The orgy, while tame even by the standards of what can be seen on today's stages, provides one of the show's best tunes, "You've Never Had It So Good". It twists Macmillan's famous quote by adding: "You've never had it so often."
Another memorable number is sung by Profumo's shocked wife, the actress Valerie Hobson, played by Joanna Riding, when he confesses to the affair. She says that despite his lies she won't leave him because "I'm hopeless when it comes to you".
Richard Eyre directed, Don Black and Christopher Hampton wrote the book and lyrics, and costume designer Rob Howell has found some eye-catching 1960s fashions for Keeler and Rice-Davies, portrayed by Charlotte Blackledge.
(Editing by Jermey Gaunt)
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