Review: Tony! (The Tony Blair rock opera) at Liverpool Playhouse ****
“Neither Tony Blair, the Tony Blair Institute not any other person featured in this production have endorsed the production,” states a disclaimer tucked away in small print at the back of the programme.
Funny that. Although I’ve a sneaking suspicion that, actually, the titular Tony might be missing a trick on this one.
Because while Harry Hill and Steve Brown’s show might be more cruel Britannia than cool Britannia as it takes a satirical romp through the life and times of Labour’s most successful (and vilified) leader, at times it also borders on the affectionate too.
And after all, as Oscar Wilde (namechecked by a gauche young Tony) says, there is only thing in life worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.
Almost more revue than rock opera, Tony is a winning theatrical confection in which Sondheim meets Spitting Image meets Shakespeare, delivered with slyly clever silliness.
The show opens, in a crack of thunder, with the three times PM on his deathbed and ready to make his ‘confession’.
A Christmas Carol-like we’re then whirled back through the seven ages of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair (Jack Whittle), from mewling baby to schoolboy with his shining morning face, to long-haired hippie frontman of 1970s university rock band Ugly Rumours.
Arriving, with Cheshire cat grin, in barristers’ chambers Blair meets Cherie (Tori Burgess), a Scouse siren with Lady Macbeth tenacity who propels the puppyish, people-pleasing Tony to greatness.
Above: Tony (Jack Whittle) and Cherie (Tori Burgess). Top: Jack Whittle as Tony Blair. Photos by Mark Senior.
Whittle, a veteran of Mischief Theatre’s cleverly haphazard comedies, captures Blair’s bright-eyed, breathy evangelism perfectly in a performance that is deliciously near the knuckle but also renders its subject rather endearing.
Rather like 80s TV wartime sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo, Tony! delivers equal opportunity lampooning. Phil Sealey amplifies Gordon Brown’s famous facial tic, Liverpool’s Rosie Strobel is a punchy John ‘two Jags’ Prescott, and Saddam Hussein (Sealey again) is a hapless, cigar-twirling Groucho Marx.
Osama Bin Laden, Liam Gallagher, David Blunkett and Robin Cook all get the Hill/Brown treatment while even the ‘People’s Princess’ and ‘Queen of our Hearts’ (Emma Jay Thomas) doesn’t escape the gleefully tasteless action.
Crisply directed by Peter Rowe and choreographed by Francesca Jaynes, the cast are all evidently having a lot of fun - perhaps no one more so than Howard Samuels who oils his way around the floor as the knowing and smoothly Machiavellian Peter Mandelson (a Blood Brothers-style narrator with vampiric tendencies and a memorable carrot and stick routine) and pops up again after the interval as the bellicose, warmongering Dick Cheney who persuades Martin Johnston’s ‘Dubya’ to invade Iraq, taking America’s British ‘lapdog’ along for the ride. Seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth if you like.
Above: Tony! (The Tony Blair Rock Opera). Photo by Mark Senior.
Musical theatre fans will appreciate Brown’s song and dance numbers backed by an on-stage band and which celebrate (and parody) a wide range of shows, composers and genres, from Les Mis to G&S to a sort-of Bing and Frank double act between Bush and Blair, to Tony having a full-blown Gethsemane moment as he faces the reckoning from that infamous ‘dodgy dossier’.
Occasionally the lyrics are indistinct which is frustrating.
These are now essentially historic events – albeit ones which have had far-reaching, ongoing consequences and which, despite Blair and New Labour’s initial brand of sunny optimism, have left us a more cynical, distrustful public.
If that sounds a bit heavy, never fear. Instead just sit back and enjoy the Busby Berkeley finale where the ensemble rotates a succession of headshots of the not-so-great-and-good while jauntily singing “the whole wide world is run by a**eholes”.
Perhaps never a truer word sung in jest.