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26 April 2023

A Tony Blair rock opera? Get me out of here!

My friend turned to me at one stage and whispered “help” with the desperation of someone seeking rescue from the bottom of a well.

By Imogen West-Knights

Tony Blair is dying. Surrounded by an ensemble cast in suits and New Labour-red ties, he lies on his death bed, looking back on his life. From here, we wind back: one of the suits mounts the bed, wailing in birthing pains, and from beneath her a head pops out, wearing Blair’s signature empty smile. Here begins the life and times of Britain’s “pop prime minister”.

Unfortunately, this is one of those instances in which the concept is funnier than the execution. The idea of a rock opera about the Blair years written by Harry Hill called Tony!? Funny. Sitting through such a thing for two hours, less so.

The friend I took along turned to me at one stage, as Gordon Brown sang about macroeconomics with his trousers around his ankles for some reason, and whispered “help” with the desperation of someone seeking rescue from the bottom of a well. I have to admit that this would probably be a huge laugh if you had eight to 12 pints beforehand and took your dad, although the same could probably be said of the aquarium or a hardware shop. Certainly the dad contingent of the audience seemed to be having a good time. When it is mentioned that Blair led the country into four wars, the man sitting in front of me grunted with acknowledgement. He, too, remembers the Noughties.

Tony! is at least appealingly low-budget: shit wigs, minimal staging, shonky props. And the performances are great, particularly Howard Samuels as a camp vampire Peter Mandelson, Phil Sealey’s laboured gulps of breath as Gordon Brown, Jack Whittle’s various iterations of Blair’s rictus grin, and an incredibly souped-up horsey posh voice for Princess Diana from Emma Jay Thomas. But even a very good impression is usually not entertaining on its own for longer than about ten seconds. Many of the jokes are tired: obvious punchlines about Blair being a wonk, Diana’s “There were three of us in the marriage” line, or the still-thriving careers of Gary Glitter and Jimmy Savile. You just cannot expect to get a laugh by having Bill Clinton say “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” any more.

[See also: Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die]

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The show fails in its attempts to inject serious political commentary into what is a patently ridiculous premise. Yes, it’s inappropriate to be entirely glib about the Iraq War, but the abrupt shifts in tone are jarring. One sombre section sees Blair convincing parliament to invade, including quotes from the real Commons speech, such as “This is not the time to falter”. No one laughs, of course. Then the tone veers back to broad, as someone yells at Tony, “You’re through to the next round! You’re going to Baghdad!” Then, the sounds of bombing fill the theatre as all the cast look out into the middle distance, as if suddenly taking in the full seriousness of what they are joking about.

It may be that this is as funny as a rock opera about Tony Blair can be. But I don’t think that’s true. There are moments when it does work. The second half starts better: Osama bin Laden singing “Kill the Infidel” like it’s a number from Grease has a certain “What on Earth am I doing here?” thrill to it. I do think it might be a kind of perverse genius to make Saddam Hussein inexplicably from old New York, having him barrel around the stage huffing on a cigar and singing “I’ve never done anything wrong”.

This is all deeply stupid of course – and yet, if all of the show had been this stupid, they might have been able to achieve a kind of giddy delirium and bludgeon the audience into submission with absurdity. A Tony Blair rock opera, after all, must be very stupid and very wacky. We all know the story: the beats, the jokes. Without silliness and surprises, everything inevitably feels a little telegraphed. If you’re going to make a comedy musical about the surreal wasteland of the Nineties, go full Blobby or go home.

[See also: John Gray on 110 years of the New Statesman: “I regret I didn’t criticise Tony Blair more”]

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