"Car crash (noun, informal): a chaotic or disastrous situation that holds a ghoulish fascination for observers."
It's rarely a good sign when you walk into a theatre to be told that you're getting a free upgrade on your seats. It's an even less good sign when you're told that everyone sitting in the same tier of the audience is getting a similar upgrade. Even on a school night in the midst of this Game of Thrones style perma-winter, it's not encouraging that any West End show is leaving a whole tier of seats empty.
So it was, then, that we had excellent seats from which to enjoy Andrew Lloyd Weber's new musical Stephen Ward, the story of the society osteopath who was embroiled in, and ultimately destroyed by, the Profumo Affair in the 1960s. It was Ward who 'discovered' Christine Keeler and introduced her to both Minister for War John Profumo and Russian naval attache Yevgeny Ivanov. The show tells the story of how Ward was (allegedly) scapegoated in the ensuing scandal and ultimately took his own life to avoid the disgrace of being convicted and jailed for, essentially, pimping.
It's an interesting story, based on genuine (if contested) historical incidents, and a characteristically odd choice for a musical from a man whose previous work includes shows about cats and trains. And of course a cracking political musical in Evita.
It's also the worst musical I have ever seen.
But here's the thing - and here's why I think you should definitely get tickets to see this show before it closes (presumably quite soon) - it's so bad, so mind bendingly awful, that it makes for a very entertaining night at the theatre.
It's unintentionally hilarious.
It is the definition of car crash viewing: you want to stop watching, but you just can't.
Where to start on what's wrong with it? Well it's a musical so let's start with the songs. I suppose the first thing to note is how completely unmemorable they are. With one extraordinarily annoying exception (of which more later) I can't remember even a few bars of any of the music. I know that I reached the very certain conclusion that one of the songs in Act 1 - This Side of the Sky - is the worst song ALW has ever written but I can't now tell you why.
I can make an educated guess, though, as the major problem with the songs in this show is the lyrics. When a show opens - opens - with the lyric "Stephen Ward your friendly osteopath / I can fix your lower back for you" you know you're in for a long night! And that's probably one of the better lines in this clunker of a show, to be fair.
Not that the music or lyrics really matter, frankly, because most of the cast of this show can't sing. Harsh as this sounds, it's true. If you like shouting to (or should that be 'at'?) music, then this is the show for you! It's genuinely baffling to me that in a West End musical as high profile as this one that the cast is so poor. The most egregious offender on this front is Charlotte Spencer as Keeler who hit maybe three lines all night that didn't make me want to rip off my own ears and throw them at her. Almost all of the male cast spend most of their night shouting vague approximations of notes over music. I rather suspect that somewhere along the line in rehearsal they've been told to make their performances 'emotional' or 'raw' or something. Well it's not working guys. You sound ridiculous.
Next on my list the characterisation which, for all but the lead characters, is just god awful. They aren't so much characters as caricatures, especially in Act 2. There's a scene where the nasty Home Secretary, with his Home Secretary voice, is discussing Ward with the nasty Police Commissioner, with his Police Commissioner voice, and the nasty guy from MI5, with his MI5 voice, that was so awful I genuinely don't know whether it was supposed to be a comedy sketch or a serious scene. The nasty policemen who put pressure on Ward's friends to compromise him appeared to be doing bad impressions of Inspector Grim from The Thin Blue Line (remember that? I loved that show!). Then there's the trial scene (with nasty Judge, with his Judge voice, and nasty lawyer, with his lawyer voice) which is so over the top, and so shouty, that I almost fell out of my chair laughing. I don't think this is the intended response to be honest.
The staging is utter pants too. For some reason, Lloyd Weber has returned to projecting backdrops onto a basically empty stage (what sets and props there are look to have been made by school children) which didn't really work in The Woman In White a few years back. Except this time the projections are on moving surfaces - curtains - which means that you can never really see what's being projected. It's a bizarre choice.
Finally, there's the attempts at being 'edgy'. There's some utterly gratuitous and boring nudity and swearing throughout but special mention has to go to the 'orgy scene'. A lot has been made of this in the press reviews and I was kind of looking forward to finding out what an ALW orgy was going to look and sound like. The answer, to throw in my own gratuitous swear, is fucking terrifying. I don't think I've seen anything less sexy and more awkward in my entire life! There's some people in leather, some dodgy choreography which I think was supposed to look like people having sex (it didn't) and lots of men in baggy white underwear for some reason. It's about as sexy as Mr Blobby porn. (Which I really hope is a thing that doesn't exist.) This is accompanied by the only song from the show I can actually remember, the excruciatingly catchy You've Never Had It So Good. This is a song of subtlety and depth about upper class hedonism in the 1960s as evidenced by its chorus lyric "You've never had it so good / You've never had it so often". You see what they've done there, right? RIGHT? RIGHT?!?!
In the interests of balance, it seems fair to point out that Alexander Hanson's central performance as Stephen Ward is actually quite good. He has a decent voice and captures the character's loucheness and enigmatic charisma well. It's a shame he's not given a really meaty song to get stuck into but he does the best he can with the material available to him. I think it's his quality that ensures the show remains so bad it's good rather than just so bad it's bad. There's also a good performance from Joanna Riding as Valerie Hobson (Profumo's wife) who can actually sing (hurrah!) and gets a decent - if unmemorable and unnecessary in plot terms - solo to prove it. It's a shame she doesn't have a bigger role. And, if the point of this show is to make us question the official accounts of Profumo, then it has piqued my curiosity sufficiently to read up on it at some point.
Overall, this show is a complete car crash, an utter mess. It's a hot mess though and I really urge you to see it if you want to have a bit of a giggle. Oddly enough you can get some decent deals on tickets...