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Keeler is a touring play about 1963’s Profumo Affair, when a young model and showgirl, Christine Keeler, was revealed to have been involved with both Britain’s Minister for War, John Profumo, and a Russian naval attaché, Eugene Ivanov. The scandal ultimately led to Profumo’s resignation, and contributed to the collapse of Macmillan’s government in 1964. It also triggered a series of trials which saw Keeler convicted of perjury and her mentor, Dr Stephen Ward, commit suicide.
Today, the Profumo Affair is considered a pivotal moment in modern English politics, when the ‘age of deference’ was supplanted by a more candid, cynical outlook. In a voiceover introducing the play, Christine (Alice Coulthard) describes herself as ‘that naked bird on a chair’, recalling the iconic photo taken by Lewis Morley at the height of the outcry.
Written by Gill Adams, Keeler is based on The Truth at Last, Christine’s autobiography, published in 2001. The play is produced and directed by Paul Nicholas, who also stars as Ward. It was first staged in 2007 at the Gatehouse in Highgate, North London. At around the same time, a short-lived musical about the scandal opened in Greenwich.
After a two-year stint as ‘fun-time girl’ Maisie Wylde on the ITV soap, Emmerdale, Coulthard has reprised her role as Keeler. She exudes a vivacious, naïve charm. However, Adams’ script largely avoids the more contentious aspects of the story, giving only a superficial view of Christine. Though her experiences are sometimes harrowing, their impact is not always clear.
Paul Nicholas – best-known for his role in the 1980s sitcom, Just Good Friends – is quite convincing as Ward, a middle-aged lothario and social climber. Ward’s unconsummated relationship with Keeler is the most interesting part of the story. But the play focuses more on his Svengali-like power over Christine than the wider political stakes.
The supporting characters are presented as stereotypes – the randy politician, Soviet spy and violent drug dealer, all lovers of Keeler – while Justine Michelle Cain (The Inbetweeners) plays Christine’s brassy, blonde friend, Mandy Rice-Davies, comedically.
The set includes a screen behind which vintage newsreels are played, and the more lurid scenes enacted, while the programme includes a timeline relating the Profumo Affair to other events, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the launch of Private Eye.
Showgirls plucked from Murray’s Cabaret Club, where Christine first met Stephen, provide a kind of mute chorus, and their burlesque routines are both titillating and eerie. There are sex scenes and even a little nudity, but the effect is tawdry rather than erotic (which is entirely appropriate.)
Many of the audience at the matinee I attended were old enough to remember the affair, enjoying its kitschy nostalgia while chuckling ruefully at its quaint moral hypocrisy. For anyone who has seen the 1989 film, Scandal, though, it’s hard not to judge Keeler as its shadow, another retelling with a few minor tweaks.
Related posts: Crimes and Immoralities
Read my own take on the Profumo Affair, Wicked Baby