Park Theatre, London – until 9 July 2022
In a spirit of joyful pastiche, it’s a Sweeney-Todd sound that opens the show: “Prepare! To be made Aware! Of the most successful Labour Premier! Now a Millionaire!” The deathbed scene, with faint attempts at confession, book-ends the show as Blair’s life develops and as musically it slides away from this brief Sondheimery into – well, everything really. Touches of rap and tap, golden-age ballad soundalikes, high-school cheerleader rom-com moments, Lehrer, Handel, and when Gordon Brown explains economic theory, a booming hymn with church-organ. That Harry Hill is the writer explains the rumbustious irreverence of it, but Steve Brown’s tunes and lyrics are much of its glory.
This little theatre has form in irreverent, thoughtful biographical plays: Thatcher and Howe in Dead Sheep, de Gaulle and Petain in The Patriotic Traitor, the terrifying but necessary An Evening With Jimmy Savile. And outside the very fringe it is hard to think of many theatres which would have plunged into Hill’s absurdist but pinsharp demolition of the personality and pretensions of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair: a figure still forever sidling into the limelight telling the world how to behave.
I wrote a note on it here in its workshop phase, script-in-hand, and said: “There’s real contempt for spin, vanity, the Iraq invasion and even the grinning PM’s treatment of poor Gordon Brown with his basso-profundo and tartan underpants. There are sparkles of rage amid the glorious Hill jokes and barbed, carefully finessed and divinely silly rhymes.”
All still true, but this is sharpened even further: the walk-on-water smugness, the innocent grin, Ugly Rumours, the conversion to Labour in a masterful Cherie’s arms, the TB-GB rivalry neatly depicted in a boxing ring, the oleaginous Mandelson, narrating and managing, the gleeful Diana moment when (Mandy manipulating a balloon-dog with great skill) New Labour realises it can “shape the grief, harness the grief and ride it back to No.10!”
Jovial wickedness, and a conclusion veering from the sharp hard solemnity of the 100,000 deaths in our illegal war’s alliance to a challenge to the audience (“you voted me back! Yes, after Iraq!”). Finally that triumphant chorus, with names and pictures of the world’s tyrants and pretenders from il-Jung to Putin to Hitler, as we bellow with them “The Whole Wide World is run by assholes!” A tune so catchy that now I can’t stop singing it.
Wonderful side jokes, because this after all is a Harry Hill reaction. In Blair’s early triumphalism amid the period’s big stars (Savile, Gary Glitter, Rolf Harris) there’s an intervention from the side with a furious “Is anybody else uncomfortable with the wobble-board?”as it is snatched away. Or the magnificently tasteless Diana interludes (the goddess is performed with magnificent eye-and-fringe work by Madison Swan) where we get an up to date touch of Bashir. The moment when Gordon Brown at last gets the hot seat and picks up the phone to the news of Lehman Brothers is magic. The global politics, guyed with a viciousness few satirists do so well, include Dick Cheney in puffs of smoke explaining to Bush how the answer to all problems has always been Bombs Away!, and how poor Saddam Hussein moaning on the phone to Bin Laden about the stupidity of “rattling their cages”, before skipping into a self-exculpating neo- G and S number. Bin Laden meanwhile sings that there’s “only one thing I detest, the entire population of the west! So unrepressed!”.
I hope some bigger theatre gets the bottle to pick up Steve Brown’s production. I also hope it picks up most of this cast, a shape-shifting ensemble with brilliantly ramshackle fast-moving, physically sharp enthusiasm. Salute Charlie Baker’s Blair, Howard Samuels’ entwining Mandelson, and Gary Trainor’s Brown, who keeps appearing with trousers down explained by a plaintive “politics isn’t about image” .
Of course New Labour achieved useful things, as well as damaging politics and international honesty. Of course history moves on, and we’ve suffered the coalition austerities and Boris since (get to work, Hill and Brown!). But for anyone over forty at least, this entertaining evening offers above all a real sense of gotta-laugh relief. All together now “The whole wide world is run by assholes..”
Box office parktheatre.co.uk to 9 July Sellout. Some tix released daily. Good luck.