Review: Keeler at Theatre Royal

By Jessica Keating

Nudity, suicide, a Russian spy, sex, glamour, a backstreet abortion, louche-ness, luxury, a dangerous gangster and to top it off, a deluded Svengali masquerading as an osteopath: sounds like something you’d want to see right? Yet somewhere along the line, Keeler decided to set about proving you completely and utterly wrong.

Theatre Royal Panorama, Brighton, UK
Photo used under creative commons by Ian Muttoo

Managing to make such a heady cocktail of ingredients into little more than dull ditch water is quite the feat but the empty theatre and my regret at losing 140 minutes of my life makes it clear they succeeded.

The play begins with Alice Coulthard’s Christine Keeler saying, “Ask most men what they think of Christine Keeler and they’ll say ‘she’s that naked bird on a chair – brought down the government – had an affair with the Minister of War and a Russian spy’”.

The problem is that you don’t know much more by the end and you’ve certainly stopped caring.

We pick the story up in 1960 when the 16 year old Keeler is working as a dancer in a seedy Soho club. We are quickly introduced to Paul Nicholas’ character Stephen Ward, the charming and connected doctor who will essentially become her high-class pimp.

It follows her story through the affair with Jack Profumo to 1963 and the trial that triggered the fall of the Macmillan government and Ward’s own suicide.

Based on the 2001 autobiography by Christine Keeler herself, it is surprising the lack of sympathy one feels for her here. The play is entirely one-sided and yet the simpering, shallow and flighty girl is little more than an irritation and most certainly a side-show to the enchanting Stephen Ward.

It is a compliment to Paul Nicholas (and a criticism of the other one-dimensional characters), that he can bring so much depth to his character, one actually relates to a pimp more than anyone else. Or is that just me…?

Unfortunately he is the only saving grace and as both producer and director also, Nicholas has clearly saved the best for himself.

Other characters are little more than stereotypes: a hairy Russian in red speedos with a dodgy accent and a black, knife-wielding gangster with a Jamaican accent who wants you to “take a bite of me apple”.

Put these next to a dull and clunky set, some portly dancers and a lack of sound effects and the whole show screams amateur.

When the most significant scene is a woman in the swimming pool and the production team can’t even manage a few ‘splash’ sounds you know your imagination is going to have to work overtime to fill in this blank canvas.

And therein lies the problem, this play sure as hell makes you work for your money. The entire premise of the play is never really explained until the end and even then it’s courtesy of old video footage and no acting.

It’s never really sure what it’s trying to say and so neither infers nor spells out what on earth is going on.

Was Christine Keeler aware of what she was doing? Did she give the Russian spy information? Was Stephen Ward really a pimp? None of these are answered or barely touched upon.

A wasted opportunity of what could have been a gloriously delicious inside story of “the biggest political sex scandal to rock the British nation in the 20th century”.


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