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Stephen Ward - Show of the Month

Stephen Ward Stephen Ward may have not have found its audience, but does that make it a flop?

Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber was the dominant force in the world of musical theatre for decades. The Phantom of the Opera has now made more at the box office worldwide than any other theatre production or film in history. But with the upcoming closure of his new musical Stephen Ward, this now means that his last big success was 20 years ago with Sunset Boulevard. The question he must be asking himself is: What went wrong?

Once Stephen Ward closes on 29 March, it will join a long list of under-performing Andrew Lloyd Webber productions including The Woman in White, Love Never Dies and The Beautiful Game. But due to its unfortunately short life of just four months, his current production will technically be his biggest flop to date. Luckily this West End powerhouse can take the financial hit, thanks to international smash-hit shows like The Phantom of the Opera and Cats. However, it is doubtful that Lloyd Weber will move on without pondering on the circumstances surrounding the closure.

The different factors acting on Stephen Ward make for an interesting read, as these may have contributed to the show’s demise. Let’s look first at the show’s title; while slightly left-field to base a musical around the Profumo affair and the media trial of 50 years ago that resulted in a tragic suicide, the name Stephen Ward doesn’t necessarily ring many bells with a modern audience. Those old enough to remember the Old Bailey trail might see the name and remember the events, but it’s was not a big enough incident to warrant it living in a nation’s collective consciousness. Younger generations are not familiar with the scandal and it is not something that comes up regularly as a topic for conversation. Fine then, let’s educate the audience. But the name Stephen Ward is just one too many steps away from the Profumo affair to directly make the link, even after a few quick taps into Google.

The second major factor could be the timing of the production. Cleverly, the show’s opening tied in with the anniversary of the trial, but in December who wants to think about a sex scandal and suicide when you’re busy buying the Christmas turkey and wrapping the presents? Stephen Ward is too dark a subject matter for people getting in the holiday spirit, plus the subsequent patch of terrible weather made people yearn for happier topics, not a dark musical tragedy.

The final nail in the coffin for Stephen Ward might have come from the fateful events of its opening night, with the shocking incident of the ceiling collapse at the nearby Apollo Theatre. The next day, all the press could talk about was the grisly accident, not mentioning that Stephen Ward had just opened to a good cross section of reviews. The potential opening bang was lost in the media din surrounding the cause and effect of the Apollo ceiling collapse. Fate was not on Lord Lloyd Webber’s side; in fact, it seems to have worked against the production.

There is another theory that a lack of ‘star names’ was a handicap for the show. Was it the string of flops that put the so-called ‘stars’ off from appearing in Stephen Ward, or the fact that it was a new musical? None of these really add up, as the cast have been universally praised for their performances. The production itself was heralded as an interesting departure for Andrew Lloyd Webber, with a complex mixture of dark humor and political satire. The songs are memorable too, especially the infamous orgy number ‘You’ve Never Had It So Good’, complete with a leather-masked Gimp in a white pinny! Director Richard Eyre injected a wit and dynamism into the musical and Rob Howell’s lavish set design of swirling drapes whisked the audience from one location to another with fluid ease. All these elements culminated in a refined production that elicited almost entirely positive reactions from its audience. But perhaps nowadays, the quality of the work is not enough to attract the numbers needed to sustain a successful West End run.

Was it the obscure subject matter that stood in the way of strong ticket sales? We will probably never know. The one thing that can be said for sure is that every risk-taking West End production has either triumphed or fallen flat, and Stephen Ward has sadly landed face down. But the show and its creator should be applauded for attempting something new and different. Hopefully Lord Lloyd Webber will brush himself off and start on the next project, and you never know, this time it might be even bigger than The Phantom of the Opera

Stephen Ward runs at the Aldwych Theatre until 29 March 2014.

Stephen Ward tickets