Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera]

Review by Melissa Blease

If you think about it logically, musical theatre is an inherently bonkers art form, relying on audiences to accept the ludicrous notion that all the characters involved in any given story will stop what they’re doing to break out into song and dance numbers and then carry on as – well, as normal as musicals ever get. So…a musical (sorry, ‘rock opera’ – same difference?) about former British prime minister Tony Blair? Why not! And actually, it’s the second of its kind, not to be confused with Chris (White Rose Theatre) Bush’s TONY! The Blair Musical (2007).

Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] was written by comedian Harry Hill with music and lyrics by Steve Brown in 2022 and offers a similar reappraisal of Blair’s rise and fall, complete with full supporting cast of characters including Cherie Blair, Princess Diana, George W Bush, Osama bin Laden and the baying Downing Street chorus, Gordon Brown, John Prescott, and Alistair Campbell amongst them. 

Before Rishi Sunak, Blair (who came to power in 1997, aged 43) was the youngest Prime Minister of the UK. By the time he resigned as both labour leader and PM in 2007, he held another record: no British PM in modern times experienced a plunge in popularity as drastic as Blair’s fall from grace. Serious stuff? In Hill’s hands, yes and no…

As you would imagine, Tony! is not a ‘traditional’ musical along the lines of, say, Chicago, or Phantom of the Opera; we’re strictly on Book of Mormon/The Producers territory here, all snarky humour, cutting satire and irrelevant irreverence.  

The story starts with Blair on his deathbed before scrolling back to his birth and restarting again, filling in the gaps and landmarks (university life; meeting Cherie; getting into – and out of – politics, and wars, etc) at breakneck speed. Serious issues (geo-political shenanigans; debates on the existence of weapons of mass destruction; etc) are trivialised and reduced to the point of pantomime pastiche in favour of constant reminders that Blair’s role model was Mick Jagger and one of his biggest triumphs was that he delivered the ban on fox hunting, while a couple of key moments in Blair’s timeline (his meetings with George W Bush, for example, and the moment Gordon Brown finally gets his long-term dream-come-true as PM) are surprisingly low-impact in terms of comedic high points – a couple of lost opportunities there, Harry? However…

The permanently-grinning Jack Whittle slips into Tony’s shoes with all the apparently effortless ease that Blair himself apparently effortlessly (according to Hill’s perspective, anyway) slipped into politics. Hill’s been, perhaps, a little bit too heavy-handed on the nice but dim/apolitical dunce aspects of Blair’s character (he may have been many things, but I’m pretty sure stupid wasn’t one of them), but such a narrative serves a purpose in a show that pretty much reduces a Who’s Who of turn-of-the-century politics into similarly lampooned caricatures. Of the ensemble cast, only Whittle plays one role, with everybody else doubling-up as everybody else, of which Howard Samuels’ camp, unctuous, Machiavellian Peter Mandelson and Phil Sealey’s grotesque Gordon Brown in particular offer memorable, stand-out performances. 

A live, on-stage band add enough energy and vigour to carry a couple of heavy-handed, rambling numbers along in an otherwise wild and witty songbook that includes Osama bin Laden and his Real Housewives delivering the rabble-rousing big hit number Kill the Infidels and a GrouchoTony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] Marx-stylee Saddam Hussein crooning I Never Done Anything Wrong. But the real showstopper is saved to the last; I didn’t expect to be singing along to the gloriously boisterous refrain “the whole wide world is run by arseholes” during the show’s gloriously boisterous finale, but I left the theatre feeling all the better for it. 

TONY! is showing at the Theatre Royal Bath until 8 July
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