Sexy parties? Check. Prostitutes? Check. Espionage, conspiracy, and betrayal? Check. The Profumo Affair checks more boxes than a brigand on Branscombe beach; it is a story ripe for the stage. Can this new musical really do it justice?
A Model Girl is set in the early sixties, a turbulent period encompassing the Cuban Missile crisis and the partition of Berlin. Christine Keeler (played splendidly by Emma Williams) works as a dancer in a seedy London nightclub. Here, she meets philanderer Stephen Ward (James Clyde), and is introduced to his celebrity friends most notably the Soviet spy Eugene Ivanov (David Ricardo-Pierce), and Jack Profumo, the Conservative Minister for War (Dale Rapley).
A true child of her age, Christine has affairs with both men at the same time; controversy builds around what seems to be a cataclysmic conflict of interests. Utterly desperate, Profumo lies in the Houses of Parliament; exposed, his position becomes untenable Harold Macmillan later resigns, the Tory government falls, and Stephen Ward commits suicide.
This is lofty stuff. Indeed, the programme notes that the company’s research was impeded by continuing government secrecy, with vital and telling documents withheld until at least 2045. Ruth Carney’s production seems to acknowledge this fact, and knowingly refers to the problem of staging ‘history’ the tendency towards simplification and triviality, the propensity towards stereotyping and clich.
Ward’s vocation as an osteopath is assertively linked to Keeler’s as a dancer: “we’re kindred spirits”, the doctor notes; “I don’t need you to tell me whose shoulders I should be rubbing” Christine retorts. Both are paid for the provision of physical pleasure, and as such their relationship is presented as an affront to tabloid reductionism.
Designer Paul Wills’ work reflects this argument. A single space can, with the addition of a tassel or a chandelier, come to mean something very different: meaning is up for contention. Christine’s development is essentially one of dress; ceasing to be a ‘model’, she is reborn a ‘model girl’ the lack of anything other than a superficial change is alluded to with references to Alan Jay Lerner’s My Fair Lady, and Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies.
Somehow, A Model Girl doesn’t quite hold together. The production is at its most flamboyant (and most memorable in terms of imagery and music) in the first act – but by the time the media circus has descended and the characters are at the mercy of the gossipmongers, things are quite extinguished. This is not to say that the interval marks a watershed; it is more a question of proportionality, of balance. Indeed, in an otherwise well directed musical, it is the second act which presents the best choreography; but this simply cannot exceed the momentum of what went before.
Musically too, A Model Girl is divided. Proceedings at Murray’s club are accompanied by dark and dirty jazz, the sound of the speakeasy; the brooding atmosphere is later superseded by a more poppy, heady fare, which is flimsy in comparison. There are some clever lyrics, but compositionally and this is true of the ballads in particular this is middle-of-the-road stuff, despite some good performances (Williams, Lorraine Bruce, and Graham Bryan spring to mind). Clyde fittingly captures his character’s moral ambiguity, but as a singer he was unconvincing at times even a little flat.
A Model Girl offers a critique of superficiality, and is at its most enthralling when exactly that: a celebration of sleaze and innuendo. The subtler textures, however, are lost. Perhaps missing the point was intentional but if so, A Model Girl doesn’t take things far enough; it seems stuck in limbo. The play is funny at times, but it lacks empathy and it lacks any sense of moral judgement. As such, it feels like more of a musical about a musical about the Profumo Affair. That’s not really anything new.