TONY! (Tony Blair Rock Opera)
By Harry Hill & Steve Brown
‘Look anyone will tell you, I’m a pretty straight sort of guy.’
A reckless reappraisal of the life of former Ugly Rumours front man and Britain’s first pop Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The story of how one man went from peace-loving, long-haired hippy and would-be pop star to warmongering multimillionaire in just a couple of decades. Throw in a stellar cast of larger-than-life characters – Cherie Blair, Princess Diana, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, Osama bin Laden, George W Bush, Saddam Hussein and Gordon Brown – it’s Yes, Minister meets The Rocky Horror Show! and a musical like no other.
A hilarious musical of political intrigue, religion, power, and romance; this rip-roaring new show by Harry Hill and Steve Brown received critical acclaim following a sold-out run at the Park Theatre in London.
Watch our interview with Tori Burgess, who plays Cherie Blair.
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TONY! (Tony Blair Rock Opera) ON TOUR
Our review on TONY! (Tony Blair Rock Opera)
TONY! (Tony Blair Rock Opera) - The Lowry, Salford - Monday 2nd October 2023 by Karen Ryder
TONY! (TONY BLAIR ROCK OPERA) IS A MANIC, AMUSING, CLEVER AND MEMORABLE SHOW!
Where to start? Even the title of the show is a string of words I never thought I’d say, and I guess that’s what happens when Harry Hill writes a musical! The show has Hill’s own brand of silliness, surreal and slapstick pulsing throughout every microscopic detail, and in a show that describes itself as “Yes Prime Minister meets The Rocky Horror Show,” it may be something you simply have to see to believe.
Whilst politics are of obvious importance in the real world, the spin doctor, storytelling, playground tactics of he said, she said, they said this, and all parties focusing on what their opposition does wrong rather than what they plan on doing right is irksome, predictable and draining. Therefore, it was with a little trepidation that I set foot into the glorious Quays Theatre to watch Tony! (The Tony Blair Rock Opera) in case I was met with these real world scenarios, and equally unsure of how this could ever work, despite knowing it has had huge success and a sold out run in both London and The Edinburgh Fringe.|
A neon red light blazing the name Tony greets you upon entering the theatre, and immediately shines a little showbiz pizazz into the mix. A deafening thunder clap opens the show, catching me unawares and scaring the stuffing out of me. Tony Blair is surrounded by onlookers as he lies on his death bed and reminisces about his life, the good, the bad, the questionable. And so, through cheesy, brain worm songs, we rewind back to when Tony is born, a fete theatrically achieved with hilarity. We get our first true reveal of Tony Blair, and are greeted with a daft naivety of baby Blair. In the blink of an eye, he turns eight, then eighteen, and is suddenly off to university. His portrayal of a youthful, innocent dreamer who wants to be a rock star and meet Mick Jaggers (as he calls him) is established and it is like the calm before the storm, the promise of a life that could have been instead of the one that was. We look on as Tony meets Cherie and dances a very agile tango, negotiates over who will get the top bunk in his uni dorms with Gordon Brown, becomes entangled with the likes of Peter Mandelson, charms a nation through times of devastation such as the death of Princess Diana, and makes an ally in George Bush before taking our country to war. And all the while, Blair remains a champion of charm, smiling throughout as he is puppeteered by those around him. Cherie is graced with a Lady Macbeth vibe, Mendelson is given gravitas as an other worldly witch doctor, Brown is a jealous rival, and Bush is the older brother he wants praise, recognition and adoration from. Every character is larger than life, almost caricature in status, allowing a vaudeville humour, alongside physical comedy and patter routines. For the most part, this truly works and is probably the main reason why this show is somehow able to appeal to an audience regardless of their political allegiance and beliefs. Saddam Hussein is spoofed as Groucho Marx, Neil Kinnocks politic speech is a parody of the flag flying, marching formation highs of Les Mis’ ‘One Day More’, Blair and Bush’s partnership is little short of the staple showbiz friendship choreography found in legendary numbers such as ‘Friendship’ from Anything Goes and Hairsprays ‘You’re Timeless To Me’, and all of these choices serve to truly take the sting out of any political alignment and instead focus on the shows main point, that all leaders share an overriding sense of self importance and self indulgence.
There were equally some moments where I felt a little uncomfortable, or just plain lost. Ballon modelling from Peter Mandelson, a split second appearance of Gordon Brown as The Hulk before he disappears running out through the audience, and continually random bursts of dry ice that mostly just blocked our vision of the actors left me a tad bemused and broke the spell of the otherwise clever juxtaposition of a serious subject matter being examined through a palatable lense. My moments of discomfort were obviously personal to me and reflective of my own tastes, so elements that left me a bit squirmy, were equally met with raucous laughter by others, so it really is a matter of preference, and not one of what makes good or bad theatre. At times, the portrayals of David Blunkett and Princess Diana had me shrinking down in my chair with uneasiness, as did the Osama bin Laden song ‘Kill The Infidels.’ Yet the satire of Saddam Husseins song ‘I Never Done Anything Wrong,’ may have also been close to the bone, but it worked for me. Maybe it was the further removal from difficult truths with the Groucho Marx delivery, who knows.
This cast are to be applauded for their quick, slick metamorphosis from one pantomime style character to another through an array of props, wigs, walks, accents, mannerisms and talent. They simply don’t pause for breath and every persona was easily identifiable, delivered with confidence, and ease. Dressed in suit and red tie, a cast of nine somehow bring to life an ensemble of infinitely more. It’s like a who’s who of the 1990’s and the early noughties! Blair, Mandelson, Brown, Kinnock, Prescott, Cook, Diana, Bin Laden, Hussein, Bush, Dick Cheney, and even one of the Gallagher brothers, to name a few, grace the stage and take us on a journey of political satire and the life of one Tony Blair.
Jack Whittle (Mischief Theatre, inc The Comedy About A Bank Robbery and The Play That Goes Wrong) is exceptional as Tony Blair and one of the reasons this show works. He is charm personified with a flawless smile that never falters, never twitches with muscle ache, or even a glint of fakeness. He plays the role as an innocent, privileged, excitable puppy who just wants to meet his hero Mick Jaggers and so almost accidentally ends up in the cut throat world of politics. His energy, agility, and enthusiasm are quite infectious and yet he can switch instantly to deliver one of Blairs real political speeches, complete with accurate mannerisms and tonality. Whittle made the show for me. Howard Samuels (Rocky Horror, Sound Of Music, The Nativity) as Mandelson opened the show as our narrator and set the tone of cheesy frivolity and mayhem about to be unleashed. He always had a tantalising element of impish charm, and devilish mischief about him, making him an audience favourite.
Tori Burgess (Pride & Prejudice *sort of, Beryl) brought the house down with her characteristics and detail as Cherie Blair. The smile, the delicious vixen vibe, and danced an impressive tango whilst singing, acting, and performing comedy all at the same time. She was thrown in the air, flung around, and still managed to keep her political feet on the ground. Phil Sealey was our Gordon Brown and brilliantly sung a complex and real speech about macroeconomics with his pants slung round his ankles and left us to do the laughing as he never broke once! Martin Johnston portrayed both Neil Kinnock and George Bush, highlighting an effortless switch between accents, culture and mannerisms, whilst Rosie Strobel, Sally Cheng, Emma Jay Thomas, William Hazell created a memorable host of characters between them, truly displaying the strength and skill of a very talented cast.
With a script written by Harry Hill, music by Steve Brown and directed by Peter Rowe, Tony! (The Tony Blair Rock Opera) was always going to be a show to dance to the beat of its own drum and only use the rules if they suited. Other than that, they could be ripped up and replaced by their own vision, and create a complete jigsaw using different elements of opera, panto, slapstick, and just about every other theatrical genre you can think of. It confines itself to nothing yet invited everything in, resulting in a manic, memorable musical that doesn’t have words like subtle or serious in its vocabulary. That, however doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of packing a punch, and uses its brand of over the top comedy to its advantage when it momentarily withholds it, leaving you lost in a theatre full of flashing lights, smoke, and the eerie echo of a cacophony of bombs being dropped. It is chilling and it is remarkable. This show may dress itself up as silliness, but have no doubt that it is also clever.
Harry Hill is of course a comedian, but he is also an intelligent academic who has a lot to say and uses comedy as his tool to deliver the opportunity for his audience to examine the world and question it. As we see Mandelson using a carrot and stick to control Blair in the show, Hill uses comedy and laughter as the carrot and stick to allure this audience into thinking about the world we live in and whether we should accept any of the leaders we are controlled by. Speaking of the carrot, those in the first few rows may get, erm, well, carrotted! I’m aware that’s not a word, yet it will make perfect sense to you when you have seen the show. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! Tony! (The Tony Blair Rock Opera) was certainly enjoyed by last nights packed theatre, and whilst it may have elements to it that divide opinion on taste, it will definitely keep you talking!
WE SCORE TONY! (TONY BLAIR ROCK OPERA)...
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