I was in short trousers when “The Profumo Affair” broke but was faintly aware of my parents’ reaction that “that woman” was “no better than she should be” and in their blinkered Daily Express-reading loyalty felt the cabinet minister at the centre of the scandal couldn’t possibly be in the wrong.

Soho showgirl Christine Keeler had a brief affair with the Minister for War, and a low-ranking naval attaché to the Russian Embassy who turned out to be a spy. Politicans were ablaze that the pillow talk might have included information on when JFK’s nuclear missiles were to be positioned in Eastern Europe. Profumo resigned, war was averted and the Macmillan government fell although history confirms it was not directly attributable to the Profumo business.

How different it would be in today’s media: John Profumo would have appeared at the gate of his country property, arm round his standing-by-him wife: a well-worded apology and he’d have been back in Cabinet within six months probably with a promotion and being gently ribbed about the ‘naked girl on the chair’ by Paxman on Newsnight. Christine Keeler, meanwhile, would have had her conservatory featured in Hello, done penance on a sofa with Graham Norton or Philip Schofield, and be fully rehabilitated in the Australian jungle or Big Brother House.

There was a sad theatrical casualty. Mrs Profumo was the lovely actress Valerie Hobson, the object of Dennis Price’s affection in Kind Hearts and Coronets and who had a successful two-year run as Anna in the original production of The King and I at Drury Lane. She never worked again.

Perhaps because it’s adapted from Christine’s pallid one-sided 2001 memoir, perhaps because adaptor Gill Adams is an extraordinarily pedestrian scriptwriter, but Keeler is a fiesta of missed opportunities.

The scandal was the political and class barricade-breaker that kicked off the Swinging Sixties and licenced the “Permissive Society”. Properly contextualised, it could be epic. The story needs broadening out so we see the machinations of the politicians, the jockeying of the press, the conniving of the rich and powerful to protect their interests, the attitude of their wives, the injustice that in the whole sorry mess only Christine ever served prison time.

The broader textures of feminism, tabloid journalism and payment for stories, a shift in politics from secrecy to accountability and the impact on a nervy and Cold War-spooked Foreign Office could have filled a much larger stage were it not for the lamentable writing and Paul Nicholas’ unpardonable indulgence in giving himself, as Stephen Ward, so much stage time.

Not that his performance is bad, just overlong. His characterisation of the slightly stooped, mannered Ward had the authentic feel of the sixties, and the gentle deference he showed to the girls he was manipulating seemed just the right mixture of avuncular and creepy.

Equally, Michael Good is sufficiently convincing as Profumo and Alex Dower neatly doubles the hunky-in-his-swimmers Evgeny Ivanov with the corrosive barrister who ultimately puts Christine away, but the characters are so underwritten that they go nowhere.

The girls are less successful. Stacy Leeson delivers Mandy Rice-Davies – a woman who later found some success as actress and columnist, not to mention re-creating the river journey inThree Men in a Boat on the Thames with Libby Purves for Punch – as a sort of comedy tart played by Beryl Reid; and Hannah Jordan’s Northern-vowelled Doris, a crudely invented foil for Christine’s thoughts, is even closer to sketch show camp. Although she looks the part, Sarah Armstrong travels no distance with the character of Christine, and the leaden dialogue dries on her pouting lips.

A very well-known theatre critic whispered to me in the bar at the interval “Isn’t this the biggest load of shit you’ve ever seen?”. Not quite, would be my response, but the big unanswered questions for me are “why this?” and “why now?”.

Keeler got a pasting from the regional critics on its 2011 tour – even benign and patient journalists in Bradford, and Brighton, and York took an unholy delight in ripping it to shreds – so is its revival merely an act of spite to draw fire from the noble lord Lloyd Webber’s musical production Stephen Ward which starts previews at the Aldwych on 3 December?

If so, what a pity it’s not got the nuts to do even that.

Date reviewed: Wednesday 6th November 2013
Image © Irinia Chira

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.