Writers: Harry Hill and Steve Brown
Director: Peter Rowe
Truth is often stranger than fiction so we shouldn’t be surprised by any of the shenanigans in Harry Hill and Steve Brown’s bold and bonkers new musical about former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The trajectory of the Labour politician’s life from peace-loving hippy, stand-up comic who parodied Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, and would-be pop star (front man of the Ugly Rumours) to being Labour’s longest serving PM and controversial leader heavily criticised for sending British troops to war in Afghanistan and Iraq is charted in the unconventional but totally hilarious Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] receiving its world premiere at the Park Theatre.
Some people get Harry Hill, some people don’t get Harry Hill, and some people are out to get Harry Hill. In this wickedly observant new show, which is as much about Blair as it is a country regretting its well-intentioned decisions of the past, the former category will be delighted and even the second group should come away well-pleased.
Pre-publicity describes Tony! as Yes, Minister meets The Rocky Horror Show but joking aside, there is a seriously good musical rock opera amidst the silliness. While it’s never pretending to be Evita! or King it mustn’t allow the madness to detract from a well-constructed show with good story, great performances and a timely moral message.
Princess Diana has already featured in her own musical, but she appears here again alongside John Prescott, Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, Osama Bin Laden, George W Bush, Saddam Hussein and Gordon Brown. The joyful fact is that all of these characters are brilliantly portrayed and serve a very real purpose; no famous person is stuck in just for the sake of cheap laughs.
Hill’s script is as batty as you’d hope and expect but never teeters over into the barely controlled manic mayhem of the top comedian’s own live shows. It is true that not every scene hits the mark and the second half focus on the USA makes some of the impact fizzle out, but the quality performances constantly bring things back on track.
One must wonder why more isn’t made of the idea of Blair’s rise and fall. It would be interesting to explore why a character with undeniable charisma and widespread political appeal became public enemy number one and became so reviled by his own party and possibly even history itself.
But the popular side of Tony isn’t examined any more than the sinister and calculating aspect. Instead he is portrayed from cradle to grave as slightly lovable and often idiotic and ignorant, claiming “I only wanted to get into politics because I wanted to meet Mick Jaggers.” In another scene Tony declares, “People like me!” which is met by the response, “That’s because they don’t know you.” By the end even Blair is wondering why everyone hates him.
There is a thread running through the show which treats with disbelief the fact that Blair got the country involved in four wars but at least foxes can run free because of his hunting ban (and of course a fox appears later on to thank him for it) but nobody ever dares to demand an answer to what remains a shocking statistic.
This is nothing against Charlie Baker’s engaging and funny performance in the title role. The stand-up comedian reveals a good singing voice, captures many of the mannerisms and makes the most of his solos and duets, including a showstopper with Princess Di (Madison Swan in wickedly top form), The Princess and the Pop Prime Minister, performed as if Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were singing Gershwin.
The original idea was to produce a juke box musical using cheesy flash in the pan hits, but as Blair the rock opera developed it became clear that new songs were going to be the best way forward to capture the operatic story arc of the politician’s rise and fall. Steve Brown is responsible for one of the best ever British musicals in Spend, Spend, Spend .and Tony! shows his songwriting skill, witty lyrics and memorable hits which will stay with you well after the finale. Indeed, if the country isn’t singing the Kander and Ebb style closing number by the end of the run there is no justice in the world.
Hill and Brown are obviously big fans of musicals as the songs display clear influences, from the opening Sondheim pastiche to Gordon Brown’s operatic signature Macro Economics and the Les Mis inspiration of Neil Kinnock’s Well Alright. While coming dangerously close to crossing the line, the trio of Bin Laden (Kill the Infidel), Saddam Hussein (I Never Got Anything Wrong) and George W Bush (Bombs Away) is a masterpiece of harmony and melody. Oli Jackson on keyboard and David Guy on bass provide solid and superb accompaniment.
Howard Samuels comes close to stealing the show as Peter Mandelson, flirting with audience members, balloon modelling to make a point about shaping the nation’s grief and sporting a t-shirt which states, “I’m Mandy – fly me” and goes on to seize all his roles with proficient skill. Rosie Strobel is a standout no-nonsense John Prescott, while Gary Trainor is a perfect Gordon Brown, aroused by pecuniary matters and the thought of being able to step into Blair’s leadership shoes one day. Martin Johnson is great too as a fiery Neil Kinnock and blustering George W Bush. Kaye Brown (a pleasing Robin Cook, proud of his sexual conquests), Marisa Harris, Holly Sumpton and Charles Angiama complete the line-up.
Director Peter Rowe keeps things pacy and ensures that the wild weirdness of Hill’s imagination is kept in check. As a whole Tony! brings together elements of pantomime, slapstick, comedy, visual gags, musicals and more but it is Harry Hill’s madcap creativity and Steve Brown’s tremendous songs with a commendably worthy cast that make this so solidly enjoyable, even if it doesn’t quite explore issues in as much depth as it could and should.
Runs until 9 July 2022