“If you remember the sixties, you weren’t there” is an often quoted line, as 60’s Britain, with ‘Swinging London’ in particular, receives the usual rose-tinted and sentimentalised treatment. Another truism could well be “some theatre you choose to forget”. Unfortunately, Matthew Lloyd Davies’ production, Profumo, is such an example.
Profumo charts the decline of John Profumo, Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government, whose liaison with call-girl Christine Keeler ( who was also, incidentally, seeing a Soviet attaché at the height of the Cold War), works to bring down the government and usher in Harold Wilson’s new, ‘permissive’, society.
In theory, there is plenty of scope to make a musical out of this undeniably juicy political sex scandal. Indeed, Andrew Lloyd-Webber seems to think so, and his latest work, Stephen Ward, focussing on another major player, the socialite and host to Keeler, Stephen Ward, launches at the Aldwych Theatre in December. It is such a pity therefore, that Profumo, much like the man himself, so fails to live up to its promises and expectation. The production limps lifelessly from one baffling number to another, crassly shoe-horning songs (songs, incidentally, which rely on repeating the same line over and over until the audience is battered into submission) with little link to the plot or the fascinating socio-political context behind it.
Some of the action was downright uncomfortable to watch. ‘We’ll do you’, sung by notorious east-end gangsters the Kray brothers appeared to skip over their horrific history of brutality and murder, sterilising them instead into ‘propa cockney geezas’. I’m not sure if it counts as a saving grace, but at least James McGregor, as Ronnie Kray, looked the part. The opening number, so pivotal in shaping and framing a musical, was disappointingly underwhelming, too.
It is important to acknowledge the obvious limitations that Waterloo East Theatre faces. This is more a studio space than theatre, and as such certain poetic license has to be allowed for its undeniably minimalist set and staging. Whilst this is accepted, the blocking, which sees certain members of the cast masked by their fellow actors fairly frequently, was bemusing to watch.
After a much-needed interval, we received a far stronger second half. Darrie Gardner in particular, both as Profumo’s wife Valerie, and as the chipper Labour powerhouse Barbara Castle, gleefully revelling in Tory misfortune, gave a heartfelt and engaging performance, providing a poignancy and nuance sadly lacking elsewhere. She reminded the audience that Mrs Profumo is an oft forgotten casualty in this whole sorry debacle. Gardner’s rendition of ‘Without Love’ is a standalone moment.
Equally, the songs and choreography steadily improved, and were, in places, and in what I hope was deliberately tongue-in-cheek, rather enjoyable, for instance Profumo’s case of having “the porno blues” once his affair is rumbled.
And amongst some of the excess there is also some food for thought; Caribbean Johnny Edgecombe’s revelation that he “didn’t know [he] was black until he came here” is genuinely provocative, and reveals much about the ingrained racism and xenophobia prevalent even in the supposedly trendy Marylebone. Likewise, Matthew Howe as Stephen Ward flitters between class warrior, lamenting the lack of democracy and accountability in Britain, and racial purist, chastising Christine for her association with “jungle bunnies”, displaying a level of hypocrisy which works to add depth to his character.
‘You’ve never had it so good’ we are told in Act 1. Honestly, we could have had it so much better.
Profumo is on at Waterloo East Theatre until 31 August. For more information and tickets, see the Waterloo East Theatre website.