When you hear the term ‘rock opera’, your first thought might be of icons and iconoclasts: Ziggy Stardust, Meat Loaf, Pink Floyd. You don’t tend to think of the Member of Parliament for Sedgefield – but TONY! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] is here to give former Prime Minister Tony Blair his very own American Idiot (but more on George W. Bush later).
Billed as Yes, Minister meets The Rocky Horror Show, TONY! is the unruly brainchild of comedian Harry Hill and songwriter Steve Brown. Directed by Peter Rowe, it follows the titular politico from cradle to grave, from his stint as a wannabe rockstar in his student days to becoming leader of the Labour party and winning a landslide victory at the 1997 election, plus the precipitous legacy of his special relationship with POTUS and ‘personality’ politics. Jack Whittle, who previously stole the show in Mischief Theatre’s Comedy About a Bank Robbery, is a pitch-perfect PM, nailing all of Blair’s mannerisms from the rictus grin to the ‘right on’ charisma that lent New Labour its groovy young poster boy.
We follow Tony through a cavalcade of larger-than-life characters, including loved-up Liverpudlian Cherie (a top-form Tori Burgess – her running joke about fox hunting is a real winner) and bumbling frenemy Gordon Brown (Phil Sealey). Through it all, Tony is dogged by the angel and devil on his shoulder: the former, a near-saintly Neil Kinnock (original cast member Martin Johnston), portrayed as a tragic Llywelyn-style hero cut down in his political prime, with a rousing ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’-esque swan song. (We were promised a Les Mis moment, after all). As for the latter, Howard Samuels is delectably devilish as Peter Mandelson, our sinister master of ceremonies and the architect of Blair’s ascent to the big leagues.
They’re joined by an excellent three-piece band (Oli Jackson, David Guy and Harry Brent) and supported by a lively and versatile cast including Rosie Strobel as a rabble-rousing John Prescott, Sally Cheng as the adulterous Robin Cook, Emma Jay Thomas as a dance-mad Princess Di, and William Hazell, who covers all the roles in the show and gets to shine as a briefly-spied Bill Clinton and as Blair’s boyhood hero ‘Mick Jaggers’. The cast double up in roles, which brings us Sealey’s memorable turn as a Groucho Marx-inspired Saddam Hussein and Johnston as a flight jacketed Dubya puppetered by Samuels’ bewigged Dick Cheney.
The accents are broad, the comedy even broader (bordering on bad taste), and the gags fly faster than insults at the PMQs – but the show doesn’t scrimp on the harsh reality. Blair’s accountability in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the three other wars he oversaw during his tenure in Number 10, are on full display, even if his culpability is downplayed into naïve self-advancement. What it does nail, however, is that Blair isn’t a pop star, but a political luvvie: picking pizzazz over principles, soaking up the spotlight while the Gordon Browns of the world are made to wait in the wings.
Entertaining with flashes of brilliance, TONY! isn’t here to set the record straight: it’s here to put that record on a turntable, smash it with a comedy mallet, and dance on the debris. While the set, wigs and costumes could do with some polishing, TONY! gets away with it in the name of slapstick silliness – and its final song has moments of genuine power and poignancy, with nods to ‘Springtime for Hitler’ and Dr Strangelove. If you’re au fait with Harry Hill’s oeuvre, you’ll find the rhythm quickly, and if not, you’ll likely still be swept away in the irreverence of it all. It might not be endorsed by the real Tony Blair, but it certainly was by the audience on opening night, who couldn’t have given it a more rapturous response. The question remains, though: TONY! may have had its Mamma Mia! moment – but will you go again?
TONY! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] is playing a limited run at the New Theatre Cardiff from Wednesday 14 – Saturday 17 June. More information and how to book tickets here.