A young girl named Christine catches the eye of a dubiously moralled older man who promises to change her life. Have we seen this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical before?
While Phantom has elaborate Gothic sets and stage magic, Stephen Ward has a maze of moveable curtains upon which to project settings and with which to unveil new scenes.
While Phantom has an action-packed tale of power, love and revenge, Stephen Ward burns slower. It takes us through the Profumo Affair from the point of view of the society osteopath and introducer of people who brought showgirl Christine Keeler together with both Russian attaché Eugene Ivanov and British Secretary of State for War John Profumo, inadvertently creating one of the biggest political scandals in UK history.
And while in Phantom we feel just a degree of sympathy for the murderous title character, in Stephen Ward Lloyd Webber’s views on blame are as clear as the crystal undoubtedly drunk from at Lord Astor’s Cliveden estate. Everyone but Ward, Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies are at fault, from conspiring politicians to bent coppers and untrustworthy members of the nobility.
Like Phantom, though, it does have an eerie opening. A lone flute sounds as Ward, played by Alexander Hanson with oodles of charm that makes him hard not to love, emerges from a waxwork chamber of horrors, where his crimes of having an alternative lifestyle have led him to be recreated like a man-shaped candle.
We follow him as he meets Charlotte Spencer’s girlish Keeler, a mix of adolescent arrogance, wide-eyed naivety and simmering sexuality. How could she even understand national defence secrets, let alone divulge them, we think.
Yet soon the evil establishment, not unlike the torch brandishing opera fans who chase the phantom, are closing the net on the high class physician.
While Hanson’s sung growl is terrific and Spencer’s clear tones work well with Lloyd Webber’s new songs, double Olivier Award winner Joanna Riding, here playing a small role as Profumo’s wife, steals the show singing the heart-wrenching I’m Hopeless When It Comes To You, perfectly capturing the turmoil of betrayal mixed with love as she discovers the truth about her husband.
Ensemble number You’ve Never Had It So Good, set at Cliveden and packed with a very eccentric British approach to sex, also sticks in the mind for its tongue in cheek – and possibly other places – depiction of an aristocratic party.
The Phantom Of The Opera has run in London for more than a quarter of a century and been seen by more than 130 million people across the world. We’ll have to wait to see if this Christine and her monstrous father figure can emulate that success.