With the Tory party conference infesting the centre of Manchester this week, Salford is sticking a metaphorical two fingers up at Rishi & Co by hosting TONY! (The Tony Blair Rock Opera) in the lovely Quays Theatre at The Lowry. I gladly crossed the River Irwell to witness a musical that had a satirical bite hidden within the high camp farce.
With Music & Lyrics by Steve Brown and a book by comedian Harry Hill, we were never going to be presented with a totally serious analysis of political events in the eighties, nineties and noughties, their zany and sometimes surreal take on events allowed younger members of the audience a potted history delivered in an entertaining fashion, without patronising those of us of an older vintage who lived through these episodes.
Hill initially presents Blair on his deathbed, confessing his sins to a priest, before taking us on a whistlestop tour through the events that brought us to this point. As this show is subtitled ‘ A Rock Opera’, it is fitting that the structure is in essence a greatest hits compilation, and all the old favourites are there. We move through Ugly Rumours, Sedgefield, Granita, 1997, 9/11, Bush and of course Iraq, each one of them eliciting laughs or groans of recognition from the audience as we raced through recent history.
Along the way we meet the cast of characters that bestrode the Labour Party like colossi at that time, Hill using the broad brushstrokes of caricature on Robin Cook (Sally Cheng), John Prescott (Rosie Strobel), Neil Kinnock (Martin Johnson), David Blunkett (William Hazell) and especially Gordon Brown (Phil Sealey), to present them complete with all their physical and personality defects and personal shortcomings, to cruel yet humorous effect. Giving the feel of a latter day ‘Spitting Image’, the physicality of the portrayals sometimes got in the way of the subtler parts of the dialogue, of the supporting roles only Peter Mandelson (Howard Samuels) achieved the balance of pantomime villain and satirical caricature, perfectly embodying the svengali of ‘New Labour’, who famously left a ‘whiff of sulphur’ in his wake’.
This knockabout style of show would have looked at home at Edinburgh Fringe around 2009 and if it had just been a series of sketches caricaturing political figures of the era it would have failed. Fortunately, Hill enlisted the skills of Brown to add songs and dance, in the process lifting it from the level of a standard review onto a much higher sphere, Brown is clearly steeped in the musical theatre tradition, and I took great delight in ticking off the influences that this show wore proudly on its sleeve. Homage was subtly paid to both ‘Company’ and ‘Les Misérables’, and Chorus Line chevrons were mixed with music hall duets in a roller coaster of genre tributes that was dizzying in its scope.
Most obviously Brown utilised ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ to illustrate the messianic qualities of Blair that were always present in his personality, the religious overtones of the opening confession carried through to the conclusion when he sang of his election victories in terms of ‘not being denied three times’. This was clever, satirical comedy wrapped in ostensible silliness, very similar in execution to ‘Book of Mormon’ in its treatment of hypocrisy and the use of religion. With songs such as ‘New Messiah’ at the outset being twinned with ‘He’s a Liar’ by the conclusion, it emphasised the change the public underwent in their perception of Blair over the course of his decade in power, once he hitched his wagon to the fortunes of Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The second ingredient that added immeasurably to the evenings enjoyment was the portrayal of Tony Blair by Jack Whittle; he is born (literally) fully formed with all the trademark Blair traits, toothy grin, modulated voice and the perfect certainty that the world was designed for him to succeed. Onstage almost throughout the entire two-hour show Whittle demonstrated great technical skill and stamina in both song and dance, his relationship with Cherie (an eye catching performance by Tori Burgess) during their early romance is both funny and natural, as are the later scenes with a ghostly Princess Diana (Emma Jay Thomas).
However, Whittle also manages to convincingly shift gear after the interval, his portrayal of Blair realising the consequences of his decision to go to war struck a suitably sombre note and was juxtaposed beautifully against the previous lighter tone. This is not an impersonation in the vein of Sheen or Carvel, but Whittle perfectly evokes the supreme arrogant self belief of a man (like Cameron and Johnson after him) who believes they are born to lead, yet when the catastrophic consequences of his actions become clear, will just walk away.
Honesty dictates that I offer the full disclosure of my intimate involvement with the rise of New Labour in the 1990’s and the conclusion had me simultaneously squirming in my seat as well as laughing long and loud in recognition, a sure sign that the writing found its target. Satirical comedy shouldn’t be afraid to tackle tragic events and I look forward to a similar ‘Covid 19 – The Musical’ in twenty years time to redress the political balance.
The show is reaching the end of a lengthy tour and will conclude in Liverpool next week, timed to coincide with the Labour Party Conference in the same city Undoubtedly this fun satire laced with surreal silliness will prove a huge hit with the party faithful.
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 2nd October 2023
North West End UK Rating: