When I signed up to review this show, I was intrigued as to how a comical musical about one of the most contentious periods of recent British history could possibly hit the right tone; and yet, somehow, they pull it off. Tony! skilfully manages to navigate controversy, from the death of Princess Diana to the war on terror, bringing the audience an amusing take on the political phenomenon that was New Labour.
The production provides a satirical look at the meteoric rise of Tony Blair from student wannabe rock star to a three term winning Prime Minister. It takes one of the UK’s most controversial politicians and adds singing and dancing, along with exaggerated caricatures of political figures. There are savvy jokes scattered throughout that will resonate with anyone vaguely familiar with the Blair era. One of the central narratives of the show is the enduring battle between Blair and Brown for power, starting from their time in university when Tony deceitfully pledges to give Gordon his top bunk bed after a short while. Director Peter Rowe manages to maintain momentum by keeping a fast pace, covering several decades of history.
Underneath the comedy, there is a serious message about the desire of the public to elect charm and popularity over substance. It highlights the integral role of spin in modern politics and its responsibility for creating superficial politicians that fail to live up to expectations. However, the attempt to portray Blair as being completely uninformed and naive is a less convincing theme in the show.
While this musical will appeal to many, it might not be the appropriate choice if you don’t appreciate writer Harry Hill’s esoteric sense of humour, which can be somewhat silly. If you are not familiar with Hill, then it may all appear just a little too peculiar. The show contains a mix of chaos, surprise and slapstick humour; but would it truly be authentic to Hill’s trademark style without those elements?
The fantastic musical score, played by a small live band, is nearly guaranteed to leave you humming one of the numerous, catchy songs, including classics such as ‘Macroeconomics’ and ‘Bombs Away’.
Leading the talented and very energetic cast of ten actors is Charlie Baker, who absolutely nails the mannerisms of Tony Blair. Other figures central to the era include Gordon Brown (Gary Trainor) and Princess Diana (Madison Swan). Rosie Strobel deserves a special mention for her hilarious take on the pugnacious John Prescott.
The set, adorned with a large neon sign saying ‘TONY’ and chequered floor, is otherwise sparse. There is a table that is used for several different purposes, from a death bed to the dispatch box, and some of the props make it look like a slightly budget production at times. The Park Theatre offers an intimate space, which enables performers and viewers to easily interact.
Despite the premise of this musical, it manages to avoid drawing many politically charged conclusions, and is able to appeal to both ardent supporters and opponents of New Labour alike. Theatregoers who relish this kind of juvenile performance will appreciate the gag-filled show that is sure to be a hit with ’90s nostalgics.
Written by Harry Hill & Steve Brown
Directed by Peter Rowe
Choreography by Francesca Jaynes
Set and costume design by Libby Watson
Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] plays at Park Theatre until 9 July. Further information and bookings can be found here.