TONY! THE TONY BLAIR ROCK OPERA

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _BIRMINGHAM REP.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _22nd APR.

June 7, 2023

images © Mark Senior.

Trying to pitch a satirical, political rock opera to a mainstream audience pretty much all politic’d out by the past few years of scandals, enquiries, pandemics and partygates is no easy sell. Doubly so when you frame it around a figure whose ability to napalm their own reputation and legacy could comfortably go toe-to-toe with the likes of the Truss’, Johnsons and Kwartengs of – sigh – the past twelve months.

Yes, if you’ve any chance of putting seats in bums to watch even a slightly leaner (at a fairly brisk 2 hour runtime, interval included) musical lampooning of the life and times (crimes?) of one Anthony Charles Lynton – as the show takes relish in cheekily reminding us – Blair, you’d better pitch it fairly broad indeed.

Arriving shortly after Spitting Image swung at similarly low-hanging fruit with its recent Idiots Assemble musical madness, Harry Hill and Steve Brown’s unabashedly silly TONY! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] jetties nuance and subtlety out the window altogether, instead offering up a rapid fire romp that is rarely particularly clever, but frequently raucous and laugh-out-loud funny.

Hill’s signature lunacy seeps into every nook and crevice of TONY!, and for the most part it’s fairly obvious – yet no less giggle-inducing – stuff. George W. Bush’s dunderheaded grasp of foreign policy (and even an atlas), Alastair Campbell – complete with bagpipes and kilt – quite literally scribbling the word ‘bollocks’ over Blair’s infamous ‘dodgy dossier’. Rosie Strobel’s scrappy John Prescott, naturally, threatens to spark members of the audiences with his opening lines. Elsewhere, the madness is a touch more abstract or heightened – Phil Sealey’s Saddam Hussein by way of Groucho Marx is so ridiculous yet perfectly enacted by Sealey that you can’t help but go along for the ride.

“Hill’s signature lunacy seeps into every nook and crevice of TONY!

And a ride it certainly is. Whizzing through everything from literally Blair’s birth through to his eventual departure from Downing Street and impending European Presidency, stopping off at some of the major pitstops in between, TONY! is zippy, manic anarchy. It’s stuffed with vignettes and musical moments that never linger for too long. And, whilst Brown’s songs aren’t universally successful, and like so much of the show, are shamelessly on the nose (see Osama Bin Laden’s Act II opener, ‘Kill the Infidel’), they certainly lend a charged frenzy and kinetic drive to the shenanigans.

A Blair pitch project: Despite being wildly different in approach and tone (Tony?), Harry Hill‘s ‘Rock Opera‘ is far from the first time the former Prime Minister has been depicted on stage. Notably, actor Rufus Wright portrayed Blair in both the Broadway Production of ‘The Audience’, opposite Helen Mirren as HM Queen Elizabeth II (in which he also portrayed later PM, David Cameron), and has just reprised the performance this year in Owen McAfferty’s ‘Agreement‘ (pictured above, © Carrie Davenport), which revolves around the negotiations for the historic Good Friday Agreement in the late 1990’s. 

If much of the first half whistles through Blair’s (Jack Whittle) formative years and the emergence of New Labour, TONY! gives itself permission to breathe somewhat during an Act II that mostly hinges around the invasion of Iraq, and it’s here where things get a little more interesting. Where much of the show is content to bob around at surface, level lampooning everything and everyone in sight – even neon-lit targets such as David Blunkett and his dog get the obvious treatment – it’s in the exploration of what is widely consider Blair’s ultimate folly that the nuggets of something more profound and interesting start to bubble to the surface of Hill and Brown’s clownery.

Whilst they choose to eschew biting profundity for much of the show’s runtime, the decision for instance to play out Blair’s speech to the House of Commons that sought to justify the invasion of Iraq, and even Robin Cook’s (Sally Cheng) resignation prior to it, as straight and dramatic, jolts the more socially and politically astute in the audience to attention. More intriguing still, the decision to then have Blair step forward and ask some direct questions to and of the audience – we did, after all, hand him another Labour majority post-Iraq – offers glimpses off an even more unique and dimensional piece tucked away beneath the phallic carrots, dropped trousers and other TV Burp-esque buffoonery.

Sure, it ultimately wheels back to broader strokes and a more generic – if crowd-pleasing – final number that settles on the conclusion that pretty much every leader, politician and, heck, person, is an ‘asshole’, but at least TONY! even temporarily scratches at some interesting nuggets of irony and nuance before the silliness resumes.

A Blair pitch project: Despite being wildly different in approach and tone (Tony?), Harry Hill‘s ‘Rock Opera‘ is far from the first time the former Prime Minister has been depicted on stage. Notably, actor Rufus Wright portrayed Blair in both the Broadway Production of ‘The Audience’, opposite Helen Mirren as HM Queen Elizabeth II (in which he also portrayed later PM, David Cameron), and has just reprised the performance this year in Owen McAfferty’s ‘Agreement‘ (pictured above, © Carrie Davenport), which revolves around the negotiations for the historic Good Friday Agreement in the late 1990’s. 

It’s ultimately a consummately broad, silly, funny time at the theatre. And, given the hardly booming niche for autobiographical political musicals, understandably so.

Hill and Brown, along with director Peter Rowe and lead designer Libby Watson, shrewdly don’t overreach when it comes to staging and realisation, either. Where Hill’s frenzied imagination let loose on a large budget has misfired before (I Can’t Sing, anyone?) here the deliberately makeshift aesthetic, low-budget costuming, ratty wigs and all lend it an indie, almost improvisational vibe, right down to the three-man band being present on stage at all times. Essentially, all involved know that it’s a bunch of people being very silly in wigs and outfits, and don’t try to slather that all with excessive production.

TONY!’s real ace, though, lies in its ‘cabinet’ of players. In fact, in places it’s occasionally hard to not feel that many of them are better than the material they are serving. Most are on multi-role duty; all are excellent.

Howard Samuels dials the camp up to No. 10 and back, from an hilariously lecherous Peter Mandelson to an unhinged, raging Dick Cheney he proves a real audience favourite. Martin Johnston roars through the auditorium and offers up fantastic character chops as Neil Kinnock, Bush Junior and others, whilst Tori Burgess winningly pitches her Cherie as a deliciously broad Scouse chav. Emma Jay Thomas threatens to steal the handful of scenes she flits into as Princess Diana, and Phil Sealey, as mentioned, is superb, plumbing every ounce of physicality from Hussein, not to mention Blair’s long-time frenemy, eventual fellow Prime Minister Gordon – pauses for breath – Brown.

“there’s no doubt that the night belongs to Jack Whittle… a heightened, idiosyncratic, at times wilfully grotesque, caricature of Blair, but a captivating and hilarious one at that.”

But there’s no doubt that the night belongs to Jack Whittle in the titular turn. Rarely off stage, Whittle sets the energy levels high from the off, and never flounders. Offering plenty of the former Prime Minister’s signature ticks and quirks and dashing foppishness, it’s a heightened, idiosyncratic, at times wilfully grotesque, caricature of Blair, but a captivating and hilarious one at that. Watch as Whittle, even in the background of other numbers (such as Johnston/Kinnock’s ‘Well Alright’) bops and Cheshire grins his way through practically every moment. It’s a superb, surprisingly physical comedic turn, and the driving force behind so much of the show’s character, energy and funny.

It’s true that despite a relative paucity of politically-oriented comedy, there are those who have attempted and succeeded with a modicum more wit and dimension, even within the framework of equally bonkers parody. The socio-political hijinks of Trey Parker and Matt Stone spring first and foremost to mind as creative operators in a similar field. Their incarnation of Saddam Hussein and the Iraq War in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, or Kim Jong Il in Team America: World Police (both musicals, incidentally), are no less puerile and ridiculous than what Hill and Brown deliver, but are ensconced with more knowing commentary on media scapegoating, American fundamentalism and other slightly more cerebral and nuanced wrinkles than what Hill and co. mine for here.

And yet, as blunt and frequently stupid as TONY! is, it never professes to be anything otherwise. For sure, it may prove too infantile for some, but, buoyed as it is by a splendid company of performers who are tirelessly funny and confidently elevate things at every turn, and speeding along at a breakneck pace as it does, it’s hard not to be won over by the madcap energy and raucous, Blair-faced nonsense of The Tony Blair Rock Opera.

Blunt, broad and bonkers, Hill and Brown’s farcical venture through the life and crimes of Blair may not be particularly big or clever, but it’s pacy and plenty funny. A game cast led by a spritely, fantastic Whittle do much of the heavy lifting.

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