Tony Blair is one of the most controversial, incendiary figures in recent British politics. Some see him as the electoral saviour of the Labour party and the blueprint for future victories. Others see him an irresponsible warmonger who took this country into unnecessary and reckless military excursions. But which is he? There’s only one way to find out…. FIIIIIIGHT! Oh sorry, no, that’s a different Harry Hill creation.
TONY! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera], with book by Harry Hill and music and lyrics by Steve Brown, is a mischievous and irreverent look back at the life and times of the most successful Labour premier. Starting at some point in the future with Blair on his deathbed, confessing his sins, we rewind to embark on a chaotic whistle-stop tour of his life.
What follows is a tongue-in-cheek musical revue that thoroughly lampoons the rise and fall of New Labour. Harry Hill’s trademark playful silliness is present and correct, while Steve Brown’s witty songs offer a delicious smörgåsbord of musical styles.
Jack Whittle‘s Tony is a compelling reimagining of the former Prime Minister. From the birth as a grinning dancing baby, to a hippy rock-star wannabe with a fixation on “Mick Jaggers” to just a pretty-straight-sort-of-a-guy politician, he nails the signature perma-rictus smile, the ventriloquist-dummy stiffness and the calculated “sincerity”.
What Tony! does so well is recalling the memorable foibles of the New Labour leading lights and channeling them into affectionately impish caricatures. Phil Sealey delivers a suitably sullen, grumpy Gordon Brown. The origins of their frenemy relationship is established in their university days where they are arguing over the top bunk – with Tony reassuring Gordon that he’ll only take it for an agreed time before handing it over to him. Later the pair’s “Granita Pact” – where they divvied up the party’s leadership in an Islington restaurant following the death of John Smith – is re-imagined as a wrestling match.
An effortlessly funny Tori Burgess invests Cherie Blair (née Booth) with a Scouse accent so
thichhhh, sorry thick, that the cast of Vardy V Rooney will be green with envy. When she first gets together with Tony, her orgiastic, mid-coital screams are of potential Labour policies. The nature of their relationship is hinted at in a song in which Tony sings “I’m like Macbeth / Because she’s my Lady”.
Rosie Strobel plays a magnificently pugnacious John Prescott in the style of a working-class Northern comic. “You looking at my jags” he bellows at an unfortunate audience member who catches his eye. Robin Cook’s libidinous zeal is a running punchline but when he resigns unable to support military action in Iraq without international agreement, his line “the only law I’ll break is the marital law” acquires a weight beyond the humour.
Special praise has to go to Howard Samuels‘ scene-stealing, fourth-wall-breaking performance as Peter ‘Mandy’ Mandelson. Him schooling of Blair on the merits of carrot and stick is a joy. Even better, when demonstrating shaping the agenda via the medium of making a balloon animal, Samuels not only has the audience in stitches but has his fellow cast members openly corpsing.
The vocal prowess of the entire cast is uniformly excellent and effortlessly sell Steve Brown’s upbeat song collection. I’m Gonna Be Somebody captures Blairs messianic fervour, not least by echoing the 70s pop-rock of Jesus Christ Superstar. Very cleverly Gordon Brown’s Macroeconomics takes a verbatim speech from 1994 and is accompanied only by an organ backing to suggest the sort of Presbyterian caution of Blair’s dour successor. As huge fans of Steve Brown’s award-winning 1998 musical Spend Spend Spend, we were delighted to hear Tony and Cherie’s duet She’s A Lady / He’s My Baby sharing the same DNA as Spend’s Sexual Happening.
Humour is always a contentious issue. What someone might find rib-tickling could leave someone else stony faced. It’s no surprise that a show that features David Blunkett’s guide dog humping the aspiring Prime Minister or a ginger-wigged Neil Kinnock regenerating to the sound of a TARDIS into John Smith only for the latter to clutch his heart seconds later might offend some. Likewise musical numbers will divide audiences. There’s Osama bin Laden singing Kill the Infidel as a jolly rock-and-roll number. And Saddam Hussein, like Groucho Marx but with a heavy New Yoick accent, performing a Broadway-style I Never Done Anything Wrong. Either you’ll see these as surreal, cartoonish ridicule or you’ll find its tastelessness about subjects as 9/11 and the Iraq war as gratuitously offensive.
If you can leave your taste filter at the door, there is a silly, frivolous entertaining evening to be had. Whether you love or loathe Tony Blair, this show is a raucous romp with some great gags, good tunes and a cast giving brilliantly knowing performances. The Recs’ votes have been counted and Tony! wins by a comedy landslide.
A pretty straight sort of 4 stars ★★★★
TONY! The Tony Blair Rock Opera Tickets
Tony! runs at Leicester Square Theatre until 21st May
before heading off on tour around the UK
(including Sedgefield Parish Hall for a "constituency comeback special" and Salford and Liverpool in time for the Tory and Labour Party conferences)Book Tickets