Who was Stephen Ward, the intriguing subject of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical? And what part did he play in the scandalous Profumo affair some 50 years ago in the summer of 1963? Ward was in fact many things – a fashionable osteopath leading a lavish lifestyle, with a vibrant personality that attracted young women and brought him into contact with political and well-to-do figures. Lloyd Webber’s new musical shows that Ward was an innocent scapegoat and the victim of establishment hypocrisy. For it was Ward who introduced Christine Keeler to the (married) Secretary of State for War, Profumo – at the same time as Keeler was enjoying a fling with a Russian spy during the notorious Cold War. Their affair and its possible international implications led to press allegations of impropriety which eventually  led to Ward’s downfall. Safe to say then that this is not your usual West End musical fare.

The success of Stephen Ward stands or falls on the leading actor playing this unusual hero and Alexander Hanson wisely avoids sentementalising this real-life character whose love of being the centre of attention led to such a scandal and the feeling that the moral integrity of public life was under attack. Hanson narrates the clearly-told story directly to the audience at times and elicits a certain degree of sympathy for his plight, singing the first and final numbers that frame the show as Ward considers his fate, ending up at Madame Tussauds in Blackpool, particularly powerfully. There’s a good degree of fun in the early party scenes (including Martin Callaghan’s landlord in a pair of large pink knickers and Ian Conningham’s Russian also caught in an embarassing situation – both actors play multiple roles well). However, the show itself fails to decide whether it should be an intimate yet tragic saga (probably in a smaller space than the Aldwych) or a larger scale musical – without the thin and rather shabby curtain used for scene changes and the cheapish projections conveying various locations from Blackpool to the countryside. The contrast between the splendour of Cliveden manor (where Ward was given a cottage by its wealthy owner for his own private use), Ward’s London flat and the sleezier side – ie how much Ward had to lose – is therefore missing. The score is certainly more contrasting with less ballads and a wide range of musical styles, and Don Black’s punchy lyrics conveying both period and character. Not the usual Lloyd Webber fare either then.

What about the ladies in Stephen Ward’s life? Both Charlotte Spencer as Christine Keeler and Charlotte Blackledge as Mandy Rice-Davies look very much like their characters visually. Spencer conveys the shallowness of Keeler and her don’t care attitude, out for what she could get, and is a good match for Hanson’s Ward. Blackledge’s free-spirited and free-loving Rice-Davies is well drawn and the upbeat ‘1963’ number sees the two girls rejoicing at the changes for the better in their circumstances thanks to Ward. Needless to say, it’s hard to feel empathy for either in their struggle for survival in a ‘dog eat dog’ world. Even the excellent Joanna Riding – who as the betrayed wife gets the evening’s best song ‘I’m Hopeless When It Comes To You’ – is saddled with a poorly scripted lead-in scene that reduces its impact. It’s this lack of empathy and contrast that makes Stephen Ward only a partial success, and focus is also lost a little in the later, over long, scenes before and during Ward’s trial. There is a sense of inevitability about Ward’s fate in this original musical drama – but it does leave the audience needing to feel more for the situation. A great concept for a musical that almost, but not quite, achieves its aim.