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Review – Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] – Playhouse, Liverpool

Following a successful West End run in the spring, ‘Tony!’ has reached the end of its 15 venue national tour here in Liverpool, cunningly coinciding with the arrival of the Labour Party Conference. I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it to this one, so it was quite a bonus to catch it on its penultimate evening.

The show, with book by Harry Hill and music and lyrics by Steve Brown, Tony! is a cradle-to-grave comedy docudrama style revue, that hurtles us headlong through the life and times of “Britain’s first ‘pop-prime-minister”.

On his deathbed a recumbent Tony Blair prepares to revisit the successes and failures of his existence and we are plummeted back to the moment of his birth, in the first of a sequence of scenes from a life that are rolled past our eyes with the rapidity of floats in a carnival. We are whizzed past Blair’s childhood and teens to reach his pop star moment, in the student band Ugly Rumours. Then we plough on through his education and the beginnings of a career in law where we meet his future wife, Cherie Booth.

In this telling of the life story, it’s Cherie and Peter Mandelson  who are largely responsible for the trajectory of his political career, she egging  him on like a Scouse Lady Macbeth, and  Mandelson pulling his strings like a puppet.

It’s an angle that deprives the central character of any sense of control or decision making, meaning that this version of Blair can take neither credit for anything he might have got right, nor carry the can for the blunders. Nonetheless, it’s one that allows for a collective responsibility for the entire cabinet, their advisors and the hangers-on.

Through some 27 musical numbers we skip like a stone across the waters of the story, offered gleeful amusement in even the most grim of scenarios. Act I gives us the narrative up to and including the death of Princess Diana, bringing us to the coining of what has since become the ultimate cliché, ‘The People’s Princess’, a notion reused to re-label people and institutions ever since.

In Act II the pace ramps up even more, introducing us to the likes of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, the latter wiggling a cigar in the guise of Groucho Marx, along with the ‘Special Relationship’ (another future cliché) built with George ‘Dubbleyah’.

To say that the tone is irreverent would be an understatement, and the humour is at times jaw-droppingly close to the knuckle, but intentionally so. All the performances are caricature in the tradition of spitting image, with Jack Whittle’s Blair having more than a little of the wide-eyed puppy dog innocence of Father Dougall about him. Most of the actors adopt multiple roles, with Howard Samuels not only giving us his narrator-like Mandelson, but also Dick Cheney, while Martin Johnson principally appears as Neil Kinnock, Phil Sealy as Gordon Brown, Rosie Strobel and Sally Cheng as John Prescott and Robin Cook, Tori Burgess as Cherie Blair.

Musically the show sits somewhere in a pastiche limbo land between early Lloyd Webber and vintage Sondheim, with the accompaniment provided by an onstage band (who may have been a little less of a distraction to the already frenetic stage action were they offstage).

Here is a piece of unashamedly silly slapstick satire that knows exactly what it is doing. Like Gordon Brown literally does in his first appearance onstage, the entire show figuratively has its trousers around its ankles. I think that some earlier critics who have complained of a lack of clear plot or any incisive political commentary may have missed the point – this is not supposed to be Shakespeare. (Yes – contrary to my normal rule I did read some earlier reviews, because I didn’t think I would be seeing it myself!)

Lets face it – any show that ends with a Broadway inspired chorus line number entitled ‘The Whole Wide World is Run by A**holes’ is not trying to be taken seriously, although here it certainly makes a serious point. Many a true word and all that…

Star rating: 4 stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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