Tony Blair became an MP and Prime Minister with the sole intention of meeting Mick Jaggers [sic], at least in Harry Hill and Steve Brown’s new satire Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera]. With a political story that includes celebrity, double dealing, royalty, charisma, war and the allure of a mega-watt smile, this world premiere production at the Park Theatre is already striking a chord well ahead of its Press Night later this week. Perfect fodder for a grand operatic story set to a lively rock, vaudeville and musical theatre score, the experience and consequences of political populism are mercilessly mocked while, like all great lampoonery from the cartoons of the eighteenth-century to the hey day of 1980s Spitting Image, it contains a bedrock of truth for our times.
The 1990s are very much back in vogue with big cultural reappraisals of its music – including reflections on the influence of The Spice Girls and Oasis – its clothing and the political shifts from 18 years of Conservatism to the glamorous hope of New Labour. Slightly ahead of that particular curve, James Graham’s Labour of Love in 2017 re-evaluated the effect of New Labour with a time travel drama set in a fictionalised northern working class constituency as the party tore itself apart over its fresh face. Last year, the BBC followed up on its excellent assessment of Thatcher with a five-part series on Labour focused on the division between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair that shaped the political agenda for over a decade. Both have lain the groundwork for Hill and Brown’s musical that covers much of the same period but with a much jauntier, though no less savage, take on Blair’s fraught premiership. Over two hours of performance, Tony! carefully and cunningly charts the rise and fall of the most successful and most controversial Labour Prime Minister of recent decades.
Hill and Brown structure their story in two Acts, Blair’s ascent told as biography and then as a tightly focused second half on the personalities and key decision-making moments leading to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. All of this pivots from a standard but useful dramatic device, the deathbed reckoning, where the much older Blair is asked to weigh up his achievements and failings. Tony! essentially asks the same of the audience, to decide whether the here presented egomania and failure of judgement in the later years does and should eclipse the better, brighter moments of Blair’s first term in office. And, while the answer to that at a 25-year distance may seem easy, entrenched even in our knowledge of what came next, Hill and Brown challenge us by wondering whether it was all Blair’s fault and the responsibility the electorate must bear for voting for him even after the war. The World is Run By Assholes the finale song decries and we put them there.
Our guide through the story is somewhat appropriately Peter Mandelson who arrives in a puff of smoke and with a crack of thunder, playing up his oily, Blair-devoted loyalty. This fourth-wall-breaking creation interacts directly with the audience, introducing scenes and characters, commenting on events and marshalling history as Tony! compresses more than ten years of political activity into two hours of stage time. But Mandelson’s role sets the tone for plenty of irreverent activity with asides, direct appeals to the audience and attempts to engage people in a sequence of events that most will have already lived through once. And largely it works very well, the silliness of Tony! earning big laughs from the start as the show races through his privileged early years, time at Oxford, revoking a pop music career for politics, marriage and Parliamentary rise, all to meet his hero Mick Jaggers [sic].
The story has more or less written itself, so Hill and Brown look to characterisation for most of the comedy, avoiding direct impressions with the need to look or sound like their counterpart by creating broad interpretations of individuals based on a single characteristic or activity that gives the audience a hook to recognise figures in the story each time they appear. And as few of them require more than a surface introduction in the back of what is Blair’s story, the approach works consistently well, offering opportunities for the surreal slapstick that has become Hill’s trademark while creating opportunities for repeat laughs with versions of the same gag when individuals reappear in later scenarios.
So, John Prescott is all beer-guzzling machismo with a thick northern accent offering everyone a pint, Robin Cook a quietly spoken liberal more interested in his extra-marital affairs than his ministerial duties, Mandelson known as ‘Mandy’ is obsequious and almost cacklingly dark, while Neil Kinnock and John Smith are fleeting figures passed almost in montage as Blair rises to the top. With Blair himself pretty much the straight-man in all of this – defined more by a few well-known mannerisms than any particularly eccentric behaviours – Hill and Brown concentrate on recasting some of the leading players in more interesting and innovative ways to enhance their comedic potential.
A fine decision gives Cherie a Liverpudlian accent akin to Cilla Black that underscores the slight social differences between Blair and the woman he married, as well as giving her a distinct voice in his ear as she tangos into his affections. Gordon Brown as core antagonist repeatedly asking Blair to make good on their deal, is seen as a dour, unsmiling Scot with a passion for macroeconomics and a dry style that leads to several very funny confrontations. Likewise, the presentation in Act Two of Osama Bin Laden, Sadam Hussein and George Bush does just enough to define their personalities, giving each a personalised song that draw on Music Hall styles by contrasting their murderous intentions with an upbeat tune. The creators even look to Groucho Marx for their interpretation of Hussein which, brief as it is, lands well.
Controversial though it may be, the best moments in Tony! take place between Blair and Princess Diana who quietly join forces in their quest for popular appeal, performing a hilarious duet in Act One that is filled with sultry charm while noting a mutual awareness of the media benefit of their relationship – leading of course to Blair’s defining ‘People’s Princess’ speech. Knowing they’re onto a good thing, Hill and Brown reprise the partnership in another form later on as this part of the show takes a quiet savvy perspective on kindred spirits both finding their allure is enhanced by the spotlight and commenting on broader socio-cultural waves in the 90s that celebrated hopeful, seemingly angelic or messiah-like figures of which Blair and the Princess of Wales were the figureheads.
There is a lot packed into Tony! and arguably the second half doesn’t yet quite fulfil the promise of the first, getting a little lost in the details of the war. So where a high-level approach brought a faster pace to the comedy conveyor belt initially, Act Two is a little bogged down in dossiers, resolutions and establishing a homoerotic special relationship which slows the story. This is a more serious subject of course and the centrepiece of Hill and Brown’s show which questions the extent to which these defining moments of Blair’s premiership should erase anything else, but the order of events is well-hashed knowledge. The superfluous addition of extra domestic material including a BSE reference feel like unnecessary padding in a second Act that could be streamlined. It means the laughs are noticeably slower to come as the pacing of Peter Rowe’s production slips.
The combination of comedy and tragedy is a delicate skill but the two here are not entirely woven together. Instead, the comedy almost stops for a melancholy interlude in which a seemingly unassuming audience member confronts Blair about the war dead and failures of his leadership, accusations that are reasonable if a little blunt in comparison to the tighter satire of the rest of the story. And while the character of Blair acknowledges the ‘tragic bit’ as part of the disarming structure in which these creations recognise the staginess of their own lives, and there is a need to confront the man with his ‘crimes’ as part of the weighing of conscience that his deathbed moment has established, it does cut rather inelegantly into the show without perhaps offering any new information. Tony! quickly recovers itself, returning to its caricatured best in the closing scenes with a rapid handover to Brown and Blair’s final assessment of his time as Prime Minister but there may be a cleaner way to integrate the two styles.
Steve Brown’s songs are very enjoyable, merging different musical influences to create an eclectic but consistent score and some very memorable songs that are a production highlight and provide each character with a distinctive sound while merging solos and duets with larger ensemble numbers that are crying out for a bigger theatre. Libby Watson has mastered the look and feel of New Labour in Whitehall with a formal black suit, red tie base for all characters over which she adds more extreme and elaborate wigs, jackets, masks and even a full cow head to create different personality quirks that adds a nice visual humour to Tony! that sits well with both the tone and the limited physical comedy aspects. Watson also ensures the set is minimal but multifunctional with a backdrop of wood panelling and a hardworking chest that becomes Blair’s birthplace, desk and platform all overlooked and impressively dominated by a large sign ensuring Tony’s name is up in lights throughout.
As Blair, Charlie Baker doesn’t need to look like the character but captures the trademark tics and habits that replicate his speech pattern, gestures and cheery charm, clinging to the notion that he is a good guy. Over the performance, Baker shows Blair’s lust for power growing, enjoying the mania resulting from a hyped-up encounter with George Bush and providing a solid central vocal around which the song and dance numbers are built. Holly Sumpton’s excellent Cherie is a great foil, a powerful presence with an impressive voice that keeps her husband in line and on track while Gary Trainor’s Gordon Brown becomes a blank and monotone contrast to Blair.
No one enjoys their performance more than Howard Samuels as nefarious narrator and Master of Ceremonies Peter Mandelson, with Samuels virtually bounding around the stage in glee while delivering a great character study of one of Blair’s most notorious supporters and, as it turns out, a balloon animal expert. Kudos too for Madison Swan’s on the nose Princess Diana, capturing those familiar shy eyes and coquettish glances which Swan has comically exaggerated just the right amount while adding a powerful vocal to an ensemble who perform multiple roles as established political and social figures from the Cabinet to international leaders and noted cultural personalities from the 1990s version of Number 10 parties attended by Liam Gallagher and Bernie Ecclestone.
Tony! needs to smooth its wartime narrative, but it gets the balance right most of the time by taking familiar events and squeezing them for comedy value. And there’s plenty of it in a show that begins by questioning Blair and slowly turns its gaze on the audience asking us who is really culpable for the people we elect or allow to continue in power. Already well on the way to being a very fine political satire, once its run at the Park Theatre concludes Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] might soon find itself on an even bigger stage.