Even in a toned-down new version, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wildly problematic 1989 musical leaves me unsure how to rationally respond to it. Part of me thinks I should be trying to whip up a pitchfork-wielding mob to drive it out of town. Another part of me thinks… eh, it’s quite good fun if you can avoid thinking too hard about what’s actually going on.
Adapted from David Garnett’s 1955 novella, ‘Aspects of Love’ is a story of boho Brits taking a stab at sexual liberation in ’50s and ’60s France. Its first truly WTF moment comes in the middle of the first half, when young protagonist Alex (Jamie Bogoyo) literally shoots his former lover Rose (Laura Pitt-Pulford) out of jealousy over her new relationship with his uncle George (national treasure Michael Ball). Nobody seems to find this particularly amiss – perhaps because it’s only a flesh wound – and indeed George ignores Rose and gives Alex a sort of bros before hoes pep talk, encouraging him to get together with Rose, the woman he literally just shot. How can you possibly relate to these people?
And that’s got nothing on the second half, wherein an older Alex inveigles his way into the now-married Rose and George’s home and spends five years essentially grooming their daughter (aka his cousin) Jenny. Crucially, this is different to the old version of the musical by Webber, Don Black and Charles Hart: originally, Alex only spends two years grooming Jenny, meaning she’s 15 at the end of the story, as opposed to 18 now. It ended with a number that was called – I kid you not – ‘It Won’t Be Long till Jenny’s a Woman’.
I say all this not from a position of righteous fury but because I’m still trying to scrape my jaw off the floor and maybe writing about the experience will help me understand what I just saw. Maybe. But why go to all this effort to revive it?
The answer is fairly apparent: its elegant, string-driven, sung-through score is up there with Webber’s best, and includes ‘Love Changes Everything’, possibly his most beloved song. Back in the day it was an actual chart hit for cuddly musical theatre legend Ball, who played Alex in the original production and clearly feels sufficient fondness for the show that he’s up for revisiting it in the role of George – you get the impression this particular revival was contingent on his presence. And setting aside questions about the story, it‘s hard to really see this as anything other than a solid production from Jonathan Kent – John MacFarlane’s huge painted sets are ravishing, Ball is very watchable (his pipes remain in good order), and Pitt-Pulford is terrific as the mercurial, maddening Rose.
I don’t want to overreact to what is basically a pretty silly musical with nice tunes and solid performances: in some respects Webber tackles sexually inappropriate Bohemians in a similarly daft manner to the one in which he tackled cats or trains – nobody looks to ‘Starlight Express’ for guidance on the UK locomotive industry.
On the other hand, ‘Aspects of Love’ is such a seething ethical mess that it’s literally had to be rewritten to make its lead character seem less like a predatory paedophile – I’m not sure to what extent it’s reasonable to sit with that and go ‘lol, musicals’.
Ultimately the story of ‘Aspects of Love’ is probably best viewed as a relic of a different era, when people did actually cop off with their teenage cousins and the British were only just fumblingly acknowledging that sex was a thing. If you can stomach that then the nice music and lovely Michael Ball will help ‘Aspects of Love’ go down more smoothly. But really it would probably be easier for everyone if this is the last time we try to rehabilitate this thing.