Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] review: Slapdash New Labour musical feels like a student drama group spoof
Harry Hill’s musical spoof about Britain’s most successful – and most reviled – Labour PM is packed with witty lyrics. It features one absolute belter of a song, and a ton of bad-taste gags about Princess Diana’s death, 9/11 and the Iraq War. All stuff I would usually love.
It’s also wilfully slapdash; full of mugging, bovine hoofing and terrible wigs: the sort of thing you’d expect from a precocious student drama group. Without Hill’s name attached as writer – the heavy lifting of the music and lyrics were handled by his long-term collaborator Steve Brown – I doubt it would have found a stage-slot in London, let alone a celeb-stuffed crowd like last night’s. The two previously collaborated on the notoriously short-lived X Factor musical I Can’t Sing!
Tony Blair undoubtedly deserves scrutiny and opprobrium – and I say this as a lifelong Labour voter – but the timing of this show feels weird. Playwright Chris Bush recently pointed out on Twitter that her own musical about Blair was one of three planned in 2007, when events were fresher. Given how torrid and debased our current politics are, Blair’s international crimes now seem as distant as Anthony Eden’s. Or maybe that’s just me.
Anyway, in Peter Rowe’s production, everyone wears ill-fitting New Labour suits and red ties, and props are wheeled on as in a magic show. Charlie Baker’s Blair is a rictus-grinning, idiot Faust, bereft of ideas or self-doubt, boosted up the greasy pole of politics by privilege and by Howard Samuels’s Mephistophelean Peter Mandelson. Their arch, clownish performances are the most subtle ones on show.
Cherie Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Robin Cook are just punchline punchbags with vulgar characteristics and outrageous accents. Martin Johnston’s Neil Kinnock comes out of it best with a dignified song, Well All Right, based on the then-leader’s hubristic 1992 conference speech. Johnston also has the best voice in a musical where singing ability is not particularly valued. There are laboured – sorry – routines involving balloon modelling and a phallic carrot. David Blunkett’s guide dog savages Tony; Princess Diana flirts with him in person, and from the afterlife urges him to sex up the Iraq dossier.
Thank goodness Hill abandoned his original plan to chart Blair’s life using 70s novelty songs. Brown’s agreeable but forgettable ditties include a tango for Tony and Cherie, and elsewhere reference Broadway and vaudeville tunes. Most often, they evoke the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan in their tight, clever rhymes. Osama bin Laden lists “croissants” and “debutantes” among the things that rile him in his big number, Kill the Infidel. The only real standout – closing anthem The Whole Wide World is Run by A**holes – is brilliant, however, and deserves to become a standard at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs.
Hill gifts the production his trademark air of precarious hilarity, and some dreadful jokes. “I’m Clare,” a woman MP introduces herself. “Short?” says Blair. “About 5’8”,” she replies. That just about epitomises the level of satirical sophistication on show here.
Park Theatre, to July 9; parktheatre.co.uk