Park Theatre, London – until 9 July 2022
With real life politics currently playing out like some sort of extended and badly organised farce, this is an interesting time to go back 25 years and try and encapsulate the career of another controversial leader. Voted back into power three times, Tony Blair left office with the accusations of being a manipulative liar ringing in his ears – not that that has ever slowed down the current incumbent. And it is this almost Shakespearian trajectory of the tragic hero gone to the bad which forms the backbone of Tony! This had its official opening at the Park Theatre which is, appropriately, right in the heart of New Labour’s North London stomping ground.
This, however, is no weighty dissection of the state of the nation a la David Hare or James Graham. Rather it is a glorious romp from the minds of Harry Hill and his collaborator Steve Brown in what they have subtitled The Tony Blair Rock Opera. Along the way we meet the major figures of the day including Princess Diana, Osama Bin Laden, George W Bush, Sadaam Hussein and Alastair Campbell – a heady cocktail of personalities. And at the centre of it all is Tony (never Antony) himself, accompanied by his union jack designed guitar Clarence – I had assumed that this was a writer’s joke but apparently not. He wants to front a rock band and longs to meet Mick Jaggers (sic); unfortunately, he has to settle for politics but soon finds a way to win a similarly devoted following.
Hill and Brown’s show takes the well worn conceit of a death bed confession scenario to kick start proceedings which then gallops through the years of the millennium crossover (“Much has taken place during the interval”) and Blair’s rise to power and fall from grace. I lost count of the number of songs which punctuate the action but there are plenty of them including pastiches of Lloyd Webber, Sondheim and Gilbert and Sullivan.
Although not particularly memorable if taken out of context, within the satirical drive of the narrative they work splendidly and with titles such as “Kill The Infidel” it’s clear that the tone is less Sound Of Music and more Book Of Mormon or Jerry Springer: The Opera. The final number is an infectious Chorus Line spoof, ‘The Whole Wide World is Run by A**holes’ which had the audience joining in and deserves to be remembered alongside ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’.
There’s plenty of Hill’s silliness on display which I think tends to be a bit like one’s reaction to Marmite – or indeed most politicians. Fortunately, I loved it even down to the groan worthy pantomime stuff (“I’m Clare / Short? / About 5’ 8” – boom boom). Wisely rock and roll pantomime king Peter Rowe has been brought in to direct and he ensures that the pace never flags and that the flags are well placed (best I can do at short notice). There’s little attempt, despite a parade of outrageously bad wigs, to go for physical verisimilitude with the characters. Rather these are cartoon creations focusing on a particular trait (Gordon Brown’s breathing tic, Princess Diana’s doe eyed glances, Blair’s inane grin); it’s all sails a bit close to being demeaning and cruel but being a political satire (of sorts) just about escapes censure; I’m afraid I laughed – a lot.
Comedian Charlie Baker makes a fine wide-eyed “I didn’t plan all this it just kind of happened” Tony Blair and demonstrates that he can belt out a song with appropriate amounts of welly. Howard Samuels takes a camp Mephistophelian approach to narrator Peter Mandelson (morphing into a clearly mad Dick Cheney and Scots stereotype Alastair Campbell) and whose interactions with the audience always landed.
Gary Trainor captures Gordon Brown’s voice and breathing technique and makes Sadaam into a very funny cigar toting Groucho Marx. Among the rest of the cast, I particularly enjoyed Madison Swan’s Princess Diana and the comedy of Rosie Strobel as a belligerent John Prescott, eccentric Hans Blix, hilarious Bin Laden and spot on though all to brief Liam Gallagher. It was a couple of hours of manic fun and my only real criticism is that I couldn’t capture all of the verbal nuances in the songs. Sitting to one side of the three sided stage up in the circle I found that far too much was projected forwards into the main thrust of the audience at the expense of clarity for all – perhaps that is something which can be addressed before the show is too much older.
I’ve already mentioned Marmite in this review, and I suspect that this is a show which will divide the crowd in much the same way as Hill and Brown’s previous X Factor based musical I Can’t Sing did a few years ago. Its success may also rest on its audience’s political slant and whether they enjoy a Spitting Image approach to their political commentary. And just in case you’re of the persuasion that it’s all the fault of the lying manipulative politicians themselves, the authors do not let the audience off the hook. In the closing minutes they point out we are complicit and get the governments we deserve by continuing to vote for them. Now there’s a salutary reminder of current circumstances. As to whether TB or BJ has been the bigger con artist, well, there’s really only one way to find out …